Mark Zuckerberg Has Been Doing Extensive Prep for His Congressional Hearing. Here's What to Expect.
“It was my mistake, and I’m sorry.” That’s straight out of Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony for his Congressional hearings, and it reflects Facebook’s head-on approach to dealing with a recent deluge of backlash aimed at the company. All eyes are on Zuckerberg because these hearings -- and the potential regulations that could stem from them -- are historical in the evolution of the data economy. The outcome could also mean historical changes in the tech landscape itself.
“Regulation-free growth is coming to an end, and entrepreneurs might need to adapt,” says Denise Spatafora, a business strategist/consultant and founder of Be Clear, Inc.
Zuckerberg will testify before the Senate on Tuesday and the House of Representatives on Wednesday. In one section of his testimony, he'll address Russian interference in the 2016 election and the estimate that 126 million people may have been impacted by a “disinformation campaign” run by the Internet Research Agency (IRA). He’ll also devote a section to Cambridge Analytica and misuse of user data, as Facebook estimates the organization harvested data from 87 million Facebook users.
Regardless of the hearing outcomes, Facebook has “already paid a price of tens of billions of dollars in market cap,” says Bradley Tusk, CEO of Tusk Ventures. He estimates that Zuckerberg is “worth about $5 billion less than he was a couple of weeks ago.”
Although Zuckerberg maintains voting control of the company, some are calling for Zuckerberg’s resignation from one or both of his posts as CEO and chairman of the board. Among them are New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who oversees the city’s pension fund that currently holds nearly $1 billion in Facebook stock.
Here’s how Zuckerberg likely prepared for the hearings, how the company designed communication and what this could mean for the future.
Behind the scenes
The process likely started with Facebook’s own private, internal assessment of the facts and what happened, Spatafora says. That means a deep dive into questions such as: Where was the breakdown? What did we miss? What’s working? What’s not working? How does this affect the general mood and culture of the company? Since Facebook is both public and multidimensional, the next logical step would be conferring with company lawyers before making any significant moves. After that, the company would probably turn to damage control for user feedback, public backlash and advertiser relationships. Next in line would likely be aligning the company’s board members on the best approach to move forward.
“I’m positive this is happening in some way or form,” Spatafora says.
Public companies often have boards composed of serial entrepreneurs or prominent industry figures who offer their insights, and it was probably this step that prompted Facebook executives to take the direct, head-on approach.
When it comes to statement wording, it’s part of “designing the public voice” and how Zuckerberg wants to come across as a leader, Spatafora says. Board members, strategists and other executives might be involved in creating statements, and they’re doing that with a collective goal in mind. The three things Zuckerberg’s testimony will focus on are accountability, owning the bigger problem and action, according to a Facebook source.
“As a company, we were too idealistic and optimistic and didn't focus enough on preventing abuse or thinking through how people could use the tools our platform provides to do harm,” Facebook said in a statement to Entrepreneur.
Zuckerberg’s testimony begins by revisiting the company’s original mission and things it’s done “right” -- then, it moves into concepts it’s mishandled. For each topic, there are sections labeled “What Happened,” appealing to clarity and accountability, as well as “What We Are Doing” to adjust the focus toward moving forward and policy change. Zuckerberg’s preparation for the hearing is probably comparable to candidates practicing for a presidential debate, Tusk says -- in this case, mock hearings complete with people playing each member of Congress and even a “murder board” of hard-to-answer prep questions.
“Zuckerberg has a history of data protection challenges, and in the past, he’s broken out in a sweat,” Spatafora says. “Obviously, he’s got to take a different approach here.”
Zuckerberg plans to wear a suit and tie for the occasion, and he should have practiced his statement enough that it’s part of his DNA, Spatafora says. Without that calm and ability to be present, he might revert to reacting instead of responding to Congressional members’ questions.
Another high-stakes aspect of the hearing? “He can’t look evasive -- we live in an era of authenticity,” Tusk says. The company’s statements tend to be scripted, so “he risks coming off robotic.” If he does, Congress could have more leverage, Tusk says. However, Facebook executives might be counting on Congress’s low public approval rating to lend them the upper hand.
Zuckerberg will also likely aim to appear open and make it clear that Facebook is willing to work with Congress -- but at the same time attempt to stand his ground on some regulatory aspects. In part, the company is taking control of the conversation by proactively introducing new tools. When it comes to election interference, Zuckerberg’s testimony says advertisers promoting political or issue ads will have to be authorized by confirming their identity, location and who paid for each ad. The company also says it’ll soon introduce a tool disclosing every ad and a searchable archive for past political ads. Regarding data security, Facebook is introducing measures that cut off apps’ access to user data if they haven’t been used in three months, and in the future, users will only need to provide their name, profile photo and email address when approving apps.
In his testimony, Zuckerberg writes that increasing security and content review will “significantly impact our profitability going forward. But I want to be clear about what our priority is: Protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits.”
The conversation about profits versus data protections could mean a larger impact on the tech landscape in the coming months, especially as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is implemented in 28 countries.