Facing Facebook data fiasco…
Facebook’s ongoing privacy scandal reveals how not to address a global crisis communications conundrum.
As a result of Facebook’s (FB) data fiasco and subsequent coverup, the social media giant is facing an ongoing negative news cycle with no end in sight.
So how did this happen? Let’s take a look back…
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg failed to fess up to all the facts at the outset of the crisis.
Zuckerberg denied the reality and totality of Facebook’s privacy breach when news first broke in March about Cambridge Analytica’s (CA) surreptitious harvesting of user data. In fact, FB reportedly knew about such data mining for years but ignored it. Meanwhile, tens of millions of FB users unknowingly had their personal data compromised by CA.
This bad news was buttressed by other reported revelations regarding Facebook’s failure to protect the privacy and personal data of its users — from android phone apps, to deleting draft videos, to snooping on user messaging.
Put simply, Zuckerberg trampled on transparency.
Being transparent is critically important for any CEO to maintain trust with a company’s customer base, stockholders and stakeholders. This is another vital lesson Zuck and Facebook apparently still need to learn.
Do’s and Don’ts
As a veteran communicator, I was astounded that Zuckerberg initially failed to show his face on national television, face the facts and offer a sincere public apology — until it was too late.
Zuckerberg’s abject failure to follow the standard crisis communications playbook only added fuel to the fire, causing it to quickly escalate.
Now, Facebook faces a continuing conflagration of negative news. This perpetual bad news cycle has burned FB’s brand image and caused the stock price to plummet. Other dire repercussions include losing the trust of long-time loyal users and badly damaging the morale of Facebook’s workforce.
This lack of transparency led to the hashtag #DeleteFacebook going viral, which only confounded the problems. How ironic that a social media hashtag was used to bludgeon the planet’s largest social media empire.
So what could Zuckerberg have done differently? Let’s review some of the do’s and don’ts of crisis communications for lessons learned:
Do: Immediately admit fault, take full accountability and show heartfelt remorse to your customer base via an emphatic public apology on camera, preferably live. Face the music and eat your humble pie, all of it.
Don’t: Hide your head in the sand, as Zuckerberg did, by posting a short and sterile written response that raised more questions than it answered.
To wit: Zuck’s first FB post about the privacy breach fell far short of expectations by trampling on transparency and further frustrating users, the general public and news media alike. His terse written reply was a slap in the face to Facebook’s humongous user base.
Zuckerberg’s March missive to users came across as arrogant, short-sighted and insincere at best — clumsy and insecure at worst.
March 21st Missive
On March 21, Zuckerberg wrote the following to Facebook’s users:
Zuck: “We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you.”
- My reaction: Really? No shit Sherlock! Now tell us something of importance we don’t already know about your responsibility to safeguard user privacy and protect our personal data.
Zuck: “I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
- My reaction: We want to know “exactly what happened” now, not later. Moreover, we want to know exactly how you plan to “make sure this doesn’t happen again” because we’ve heard this countless times over the years already, albeit to no avail.
Zuck: “But we also made mistakes, there’s more to do, and we need to step up and do it.”
- My reaction: Duh! Is that really the bare minimum you can say or do to lessen user concerns? Further, you should have said this during a live press conference, which would have allowed the public to observe your remorse and feel your purported pain via intonation, facial expression and body language. The written word doesn’t suffice in a crisis.
Zuck: “I promise you we’ll work through this and build a better service over the long term.”
- My reaction: This isn’t the first time we’ve heard these same failed promises to flat out fix Facebook. Why should users believe you now?
Facebook has been forced to acknowledge a multitude of mistakes for over a decade, yet FB’s privacy problems are still prevalent. Therefore, Zuck’s pleadings and promises amount to empty rhetoric, at least so far.
Media Mistakes Multiply
It’s obvious in hindsight that Zuckerberg failed miserably by refusing to immediately disclose the full scope and magnitude of the Cambridge Analytica data breach. This will haunt him for months or years to come.
The number of users potentially impacted continued to climb after the news first broke, making a bad situation worse — from millions, to tens of millions, to nearly 100 million thus far.
Flash forward two weeks: Finally, on April 4, Facebook issued a follow-up statement headlined: “An Update on Our Plans to Restrict Data Access…”
But the latest information and admissions didn’t come from Zuckerberg. Rather, this time there was a written response from Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer. The statement read:
FB: “Two weeks ago we promised to take a hard look at the information apps can use when you connect them to Facebook as well as other data practices. Today, we want to update you on the changes we’re making to better protect your Facebook information.”
- My reaction: What the heck took so long? And shouldn’t you have proactively taken a “hard look” at the apps years ago, rather than idly waiting for problems to arise? Well, better late than never — yet again!
FB: “We expect to make more changes over the coming months — and will keep you updated on our progress. Here are the details of the nine most important changes we are making.”
- My reaction: So users need to wait months for you to finish diagnosing this illness and providing an effective cure? How often will you update users on your progress: bi-weekly, bi-monthly, more or less? Well at least after two long weeks you have some preliminary changes to report.
The statement went on to describe the technical changes Facebook plans to make by some unspecified future date. This was another failed attempt to steer the social media ship back on course and bandage Facebook’s bruised brand image. But Zuck appears to have only one hand on the steering wheel.
Facebook’s SOS to users more aptly resembled a supersized ship slowly sinking in the middle of the ocean, similar to the infamous story of the doomed Titanic.
Additionally, it appeared that Zuckerberg was passing the baton of blame to his subordinates when it was incumbent on him to personally and directly address user concerns in a public setting.
Shine a Lantern on It
With dozens of PR and media advisors at his disposal, it’s perplexing that Zuckerberg couldn’t communicate with the public more effectively. Here’s some of what he could have done:
- Order the “brain trust” at Facebook to gather all the information needed to fully inform the public about the totality of the data breach immediately.
- Provide all the information to the news media at one time (to the extent possible) to curtail more negative news cycles slamming FB and Zuck’s questionable leadership.
- Hold a live press conference at FB headquarters in which he fully admitted fault, apologized on camera and laid out all the information possible about the data breach and other user privacy issues.
I would have advised Zuck to take every question reporters had, no matter how long it took, in order to defuse the data scandal.
Zuckerberg could have been flanked at the podium by Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and other C-Suite executives in a supporting role.
In short, FB should have shined a lantern on the privacy problems by being fully transparent at the outset. It’s often said in media relations and journalism that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
Yet Zuck left the news media and the public largely in the dark, as newly damaging information continued to trickle out for more than two weeks (and counting).
Zuckerberg should have possessed the practical knowledge and common sense to know “the cover up is worse than the crime,” per the Watergate term coined from Richard Nixon’s disgraced presidency.
More Media Mistakes
Unfortunately, Zuckerberg’s media relations mishaps continued. He unwisely chose to grant interviews to only a few select media outlets while dismissing others, as the bad news continued to mount.
Then Zuckerberg hid his head in the sand again by holding a lame conference call with reporters.
This was oddly reminiscent of 20th century old-school communications technology, which came across as highly unusual from a preeminent 21st century tech expert.
While the call with the media might have made the inventor of the telephone proud (Alexander Graham Bell in the late 1880s), it did little to curtail the controversy.
The public face of Facebook once again failed to face the public via live TV, video streaming or other high-tech communication tools.
Zuck’s wrongheaded decision to avoid an open-ended press conference only gave more legs to the story, with his explanations and admissions being too limited, too little and too late (if not outright misleading).
Unfortunately, Facebook’s failure to quickly formulate and implement an effective crisis communications strategy is too familiar in corporate culture — and simply baffling from a PR perspective. There’s too much stonewalling and not enough breaking down walls of mistrust.
Corporate America is among the worst culprits when it comes to trampling on transparency, with Facebook being only the latest example in a long list.
The sad truth is that too many corporate titans — from Silicon Valley to Wall Street to Main Street — continue to purposely withhold important information from journalists and the public for frivolous or irrational reasons. Moreover, too many CEOs cover-up real or perceived malfeasance until someone finally blows the whistle in the media.
As a communications consultant, I find it startling that top CEOs either don’t recognize, or don’t care, how corporate cover-ups jeopardize their company’s credibility and hurt the bottom line.
CEOs should treasure being transparent and treat transparency as more than just a popular buzzword to use when convenient in deflecting media criticism.
When it comes to social media, there’s no CEO who needs to foster a leadership role in showcasing transparency more than Mark Zuckerberg.
Facebook should strive to be a model employer — not a bad actor — by promoting best practices for transparency industry-wide and worldwide.
- Why didn’t Zuck come clean with all the damaging information faster to contain and quell the negative news?
- Why did Zuck flee the white hot spotlight of the camera lens by refusing to face the press via a live press conference?
Again, a live press conference with all questions addressed could have worked wonders in helping the besieged CEO deflate and diminish the negative news cycle. Yet Facebook failed to face all the facts and failed in taking full accountability and responsibility in a live public forum.
This move would have made Zuck appear more human and less robotic by showing the public, in person, how much these privacy problems troubled him and how much he really cared about protecting FB’s user base.
But Zuckerberg ended up getting schooled in crisis communications when he should have already passed the test based on prior experience.
The entire point of crisis communications is addressing PR problems head on with a rapid response. Get all the bad news out as quickly as possible by releasing all the damaging internal information possible — and all at one time, if possible.
Admit mistakes and ask to be forgiven. Show remorse. Answer all media questions. Then, after fully acknowledging the controversy at hand, take full responsibility and pledge renewed accountability.
Lastly, try to get ahead of the next news cycle by pivoting to some positive news, even if it’s a prior success that is ongoing to benefit the public. Highlight any philanthropic efforts or initiatives promoting corporate social responsibility. Articulate a new positive narrative supported by facts to balance out all the negative reporting.
Yet Zuckerberg did none of the above.
Rather than communicating openly and sincerely on camera, Zuck took comfort in the confines of cyberspace — cowering behind closed doors at FB headquarters. Meanwhile, the crisis mushroomed. Finally, he was forced to show his face to save face. Thus, he conducted limited on-camera interviews to admit what was already known about the Facebook F-up.
Zuckerberg and Facebook would have been much better off had they fully fessed-up, adequately apologized to all, and promised to promote truth and transparency when the scandal first became public in March.
Further, such promises needed to amount to more than words alone. Thus, a comprehensive action plan should have been publicly disseminated, not just a one-off written statement by the CTO released through the FB “newsroom.”
Facebook users have seen this movie before: it’s called “Groundhog Day” (the 1993 Hollywood blockbuster in which the same day repeats itself until the protagonist proves triumphant).
Perhaps this time Zuckerberg will end up surprising everyone by rising to the occasion in redeeming himself and his company. Will the Facebook founder seize the opportunity when he faces two congressional committees on Tuesday and Wednesday? Hopefully, he will face up, fess up and set the record straight once and for all.
Meanwhile, Facebook deserves a giant thumbs-down in the social media space and every other place.
You also might like…
- What to Make of Mark Zuckerberg’s Mea Culpa to Congress
- Media Relations 101: Why Transparency Always Triumphs
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David is a strategic communications consultant, featured writer and former federal government spokesman based in the Washington, DC-area. His work experience includes the White House, Congress, OMB and EEOC. A native New Yorker, David was a journalist prior to his career of public service. You can also find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.
NOTE: All views and opinions are those of the author only and not official statements or endorsements of any public sector employer, private sector employer, organization or political entity.