Facebook’s Latest Lesson in Crisis Communications

By Tim Hurley

Mark Zuckerberg is under fire. And deservedly so.

He’s also likely tired of apologizing to the world, but that goes with the CEO title and pay grade.

As Facebook endures day 11 of its latest PR crisis, how sincere and how effective has Zuckerberg been in dealing with the media and has he successfully reassured his shareholders, employees, advertisers and most importantly, the 2.2 billion users worldwide that Facebook can truly ensure data protection and user privacy?  And how did the Facebook PR team handle crisis communications? Can it regain the public’s trust?

First, a quick look back at what transpired:

Cambridge Analytica, a data firm with ties to President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, accessed information from 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge, and it certainly looks as if they kept that data even after Facebook ordered it to be deleted.

Five days after the news broke, Zuckerberg had been MIA before taking to – where else? Facebook to initially address the crisis.  His missive promised changes, but contained no apology and was positioned as an “update” on the Cambridge Analytica situation.  “We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you,” Zuckerberg wrote. “I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Five days? In time of crisis, five days equals a lifetime.

To his credit, he also met with the media – and wisely picked a “friendly” when he spoke with CNN’s Laurie Segall in an exclusive interview broadcast on “Anderson Cooper 360” last Wednesday night.  However, when speaking with Segall, his “I’m really sorry…” apology rang a bit insincere, particularly the degree of personal accountability he seemed willing to acknowledge.

Zuckerberg did address the data breach issue head-on and noted the policy changes that had been instituted to prevent such an issue from re-occurring.  He also said he’d be willing to testify before Congress.  “The short answer is I’m happy to if it’s the right thing to do,” he told Segall.  Mashable reported that Zuckerberg would indeed testify.

A day after the Segall interview, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg sat down with CNBC’s Julia Boorstin. It is noteworthy in that both interviews were conducted with live broadcast outlets, putting Zuckerberg and Sandberg on the spot, certainly more so than if they’d picked a web or print outlet.  Sandberg attempted to help deflect some of the heat from her boss and she did a credible job even if she provided few specifics around new steps taken to ensure there isn’t another Cambridge Analytica leak brewing. “This is about trust and earning the trust of the people who use our service is the most important thing we do. And we are very committed to earning it.’

Rule #1 in crisis communications is to put out the fire. Immediately and permanently. Unfortunately for Facebook, this story continues into week two.

While it took out full page ads in UK papers apologizing, this Axios poll revaled that Facebook’s favorability rating has nose-dived over the past five months.

The social media environment worsened too as the #DeleteFacebook movement gained steam and support from highly influential folks including WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton and Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

Mainstream print and broadcast media including Cosmo and CNN asked if it is time to delete the app and the AP reported that Facebook tracks user activity outside the app, but it does so by standing behind a verbose privacy policy that nobody bothers to read.

Finally, it was this week’s bombshell – the FTC said it is investigating Facebook for its data handling practices – which created yet another news cycle and further punished the company’s stock, which has plummeted nearly 20 percent in a week.

As more details emerge, the biggest concerns that shareholders have is how is Facebook going to reconcile third-party data access with user privacy?  The two are antithetical.  Providing third-party app developers access to its platform is core to Facebook’s business model.  If that changes – and it should – how will Facebook’s revenues be impacted?

These are tough and very complicated matters. Media relations and crisis communications however, can be much less complex. Crisis PR 101 has three fundamental tenets and Facebook whiffed on all three:

  1. Act Fast – Zuckerberg simply took too long to get in front of the media.
  2. Be Transparent & Empathetic – Zuckerberg came across as not being fully forthcoming and did not apologize.
  3. Speak in a Single Voice – Zuckerberg, not Sandberg, should have addressed the media.

What do you think? How well did Facebook’s communications and executive teams perform when the media spotlight intensified? Were they credible? Will that response help or hurt Facebook in the long run?