Mark Zuckerberg Gives a Lesson in How Not to Lead in a Crisis
For a while, Facebook could do no wrong. All you have to do is take a quick look at the Facebook stock chart and you’ll see a company that has watched its value rise nearly 500 percent over the past five years alone. But that same chart will also show you a hefty decline since the middle of March. In all honesty, CEO Mark Zuckerberg is to blame.
Cambridge Analytica exposed Zuckerberg’s greatest flaw.
It would be safe to say that public trust in Facebook is at an all-time low. If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that trust must be continually cultivated, no matter how much of it you think your organization has.
Perhaps it was an inflated sense of public trust, an attitude of invincibility, or an unwillingness to own up to responsibility that led Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg and other Facebook executives to take a painfully long time to formulate a response to the news that data firm Cambridge Analytica gained access to millions of its users’ data three years ago. However, at this point, does it really matter? The problem is that Facebook is developing a poor track record of managing crises.
Now that people know just how much of their personal data Facebook has, the last thing the company can afford is for people to view the social network giant as being irresponsible. Unfortunately, Zuckerberg’s response in the wake of this crisis has done little to instill confidence and accountability.
Zuckerberg and the company must decide whether they’re going to embrace the responsibility they have. They’ve walked into this mess by amassing mounds of personal information on users. If they don’t want to deal with the responsibility that comes with it, they need to step out of the way. That’s the blunt truth.
To Zuckerberg’s credit, he finally spoke up. “I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Zuckerberg wrote in a post on his profile. “I promise you we’ll work through this and build a better service over the long term.”
Zuckerberg’s response was, arguably, another poor PR move. He said no more than you’d expect but far later than he should have. Plus, it was sterile and vague. He left many wondering if Facebook is really doing enough to protect user data.
Takeaways from Facebook’s PR debacle.
Taking your personal feelings and data out of the equation, the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica crisis has been a textbook PR case study in what not to do. As we look at it in more detail, here are a few of the takeaways and lessons business owners and entrepreneurs should spend some time studying.
1. Don’t delay.
The issue most people had with Facebook’s response was that it took so long for one to be formulated and publicized. Since the company obviously was aware of what was going on, it was unacceptable and disingenuous to keep people waiting for days.
One of the first rules of good crisis management is to get ahead of the problem. The sooner you can address the issue, the better you can shape the public narrative and response.
Zuckerberg’s eventual response was 936 words long. While it contained a bunch of corporate language and legal jargon, do you know what word was completely missing? The simple word sorry.
It’s not always necessary to spend a bunch of time apologizing in the wake of a crisis, but you do need to say sorry -- even if the incident was largely outside your control. It humanizes your brand and makes you look like you care.
The final lesson is to take action. If you say you’re going to do something, make sure your actions follow your speech. While it remains to be seen if Facebook will maintain a stiffer posture on responsibly stewarding user data, there has been some initial activity.
Zuckerberg recently posted to his Facebook page that new privacy and security settings have been placed at the top of everyone’s Newsfeed so that users can easily disable apps they are no longer using and tweak their security settings to fit their preferences. If nothing else, it’s a start.
For Zuckerberg and Facebook, the good news is there will be plenty of opportunities to rebuild trust with users. However, if they’re going to restore that trust, they must learn from their mistakes and make it a point to improve their crisis management efforts and address the PR shortcomings they’ve repeatedly been characterized by. As an outsider looking in, you can also learn from their mistakes and prepare your own business for handling crises with more grace.