A pitched battle between the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and NewsCorp’s Rupert Murdoch would have most of us grabbing the popcorn and pausing Bridgerton on its own merits, but toss in the implications of potentially the decade’s biggest upheaval in social media and news — and it should be compelling viewing for the entire, global PR industry.   

If the goings on down under are not your regular news focus, let me backup a little and set the pre-fight scene.

The Australian government like many others, is upset that the social media giants, especially Facebook and Google, are overly dominant, pay little tax and suck huge profits out of the country. Those profits, furthermore, partly come at the expense of the traditional news industry. Canada, France and the EU have begun to address these issues too, but none have progressed as far as the Australians, which may have something to do with the links between media mogul Rupert Murdoch and the ruling Australian Liberal party.

Either way, these concerns prompted the drafting of the News Media Bargaining Code, a blunt instrument of a bill that had passed the first of Australia’s two legislatures and was the basis of negotiations between Facebook and Google and the Australian government. Essentially, the bill would force both companies to pay a tithe for the links they provided to news organisations. A considerable measure considering that, for many, the whole ethos of the Internet revolves around the free linking of sites.

For Google, this was a crucial threat. Links to news are the staple of search and, in Bing and Microsoft, they have a competitor that is threatening to agree a deal to plug the gap left if Google was to exit the market. Australia is no economic giant, but it is currently the world’s 13th biggest economy and set to become the 11th biggest, overtaking Russia, by 2026.

Accordingly, Google has come to an agreement and will now negotiate direct payment to some Australian news sites including Murdoch’s News Corp. You can be sure that this kind of dealmaking will prove contagious, with other governments expected to move on Google for the same or better terms — egged on, no doubt, by their own media owners, often with Murdoch in the vanguard.

Facebook however, claims that only 4% of its content is news. (While this might be true, engagement figures for news are undoubtedly much higher). Perhaps feeling less commercially vulnerable, Facebook has taken the opposite tack and blocked all Australian news sites. They did this with little warning, and the ban has blocked a host of community sites and non-news outlets, including several dedicated to emergency and health services dealing with Covid. 

This, understandably, is not a good look for a technology giant that has been grappling with PR issues for much of its recent history. (According to my ex-colleagues, they also blocked Edelman Australia’s Facebook page, although this has caused rather less outrage.)

Doubtless, the Australian government and Facebook are in negotiations at present. But imagine for a moment what Facebook without news content would mean. From a user perspective, the news feed overwhelmingly becomes dominated by user-generated content and stories from non-attributed news sites. In the era of fake news and weaponised disinformation, this is perhaps the last thing we need.

Facebook began to make moves in this direction in 2018, when it pivoted to more user-based content or “meaningful social interactions”. The company has, belatedly, begun to address fake news, but totally removing mainstream news and (at the moment) crucial public information from the feed, will make the experience much more like, for example, TikTok. That, of course, would be a major change for Facebook users. 

So, with Google paying some news organizations for news links, and Facebook blocking all local news content, what are the implications for the PR industry outside Australia?

Well, if you believe that legislators in other countries are asleep at the wheel, then perhaps this storm can be contained within an Australian teacup. But if the same or something similar happened in your market, then:

Some news media would get a financial shot in the arm from the Google payments. Which, and how much, are debatable. Then, of course, we have to hope those payments are applied to journalists and content and not recycled straight back to shareholders and owners.

The problem is that, if those payments only go to the major, established media players, as appears to be the case in Australia — niche and community media and media startups would end up with the worst of both worlds. Bigger media reaping the benefits of better funding, while the rest get nothing, could further distort the media ecosystem that the PR industry relies on.

Of note, Google’s share price has hardly moved throughout this period, so the market is either not expecting this deal to impact other markets or is betting that the amounts paid will be manageable (or can be recouped in higher search prices charged to advertisers). The News Corp share price rose by 10% but is now back to where it started before the deal was announced.

Everyone would have to rethink their version of the ‘earned centric, social by design’ content strategies that have been a staple of the industry for the last decade. Facebook is not the only social platform obviously, but it is by far the biggest, which means both the biggest mass audience and most targeted niche audience through its ability to target interest, behaviour, demographics and job title. You just can’t go small without being big! 

If Facebook took Australian style restrictions to your market, there would be no organic reach through the platform for your earned media coverage and so PR firms would have to pay for all amplification.  Most leading agencies and in-house teams do this already and are familiar with Facebook Ads Manager, but as a whole the industry would have to become more expert fast to boost by paid what was achieved in the past by sharing.

If Facebook is dominated by cat gifs, shuffle dancing and fake news, at the expense of organic news, sport, politics and entertainment, would it still be the environment to place content? 

Media agency PHD is already telling Australian clients that, because of these concerns, Facebook will no longer be a ‘premium content platform’. Specifically “the value of the platform...is diminished in the short term. This same audience can be reached through other platforms and channels using programmatic methods and with the ability to curate and select the publishers they wish to appear against which will include content from trusted new sources”. For many brands, Facebook would not be a place they would want to be seen.     

Initial polling and consumer sentiment in Australia seems to indicate that people do value their news content and that many of those who rely on Facebook for news would now be tempted to visit news sites and apps. Time will tell if this is true, but the reach of traditional media relations will probably be negatively impacted by the lack of organic amplification through Facebook, even if direct traffic to media websites and apps increases.

You would have to expect that audiences would drift away to other news sources and other social platforms if Facebook becomes a less quality environment. This probably benefits the PR industry as multi-channel communications (rather than a few primary media) has typically given the sector a comparative advantage compared to advertising, for example. 

However, the type of content that works on TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat is quite different to Facebook so be prepared to retool your creative output.

It’s difficult to tell how Google’s shakedown deal or Facebook's national news ban experiment will turn out in Australia. In all likelihood, the relevant protagonists have no idea either. What is certain is that we are only at the beginning of this battle. The next round may well be coming to a country near you, shaping the industry everywhere it goes.