How Facebook's bungled response intensified its crisis

It has been described by commentators as the ‘worst handled crisis in the history of modern business’ and frankly it is hard to disagree with that assessment.

Crisis media management situations don’t come much bigger than the one that has engulfed Facebook this week. Yet its bosses appear to have ignored the basic rules of reputation management and have seemingly thrown the crisis comms playbook out of the window.   

Since the allegations first broke, in the New York Times and The Guardian, that research firm Cambridge Analytica had misused the data of 50 million Facebook users, the world’s media has become focused on the developing story.

The hashtag #DeleteFacebook has been trending and its stock has plunged.

Yet despite all this, the social media network’s bosses seemingly went into hiding – a terrible approach to take during any crisis, but also a tactic which seems completely at odds with a brand based on sharing information and ‘being social’.

In fact, the silence of CEO Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, was not only a disastrous strategy, but it also became something of a sideshow to the rapidly evolving story.


Where’s Zuck? Facebook CEO silent as data harvesting scandal unfolds The Guardian

Zuckerberg stays silent on Cambridge Analytica scandal Mashable

Missing from Facebook’s crisis: Mark Zuckerberg New York Times


The CEO does not necessarily need to be the spokesperson in a crisis. Sometimes, for example, another member of the leadership team with more detailed technical knowledge of what has gone wrong may be better placed to face the cameras.

But when the crisis threatens the very nature of your business – as a BBC report put it, ‘data is like oil to Facebook’ – then those leaders really do need to step up and face the music.

Mr Zuckerberg and Ms Sandberg may, as an early Facebook statement suggested, have been ‘working around the clock to get all the facts and take the appropriate action moving forward’, but they needed to find time at an early stage to address the media, show some remorse and display some visible leadership.

Even if they were unable, or unwilling, to say any more than what has been in statements, fronting up to the media would have at least shown they are taking the issue seriously and gone someway to ensuring their customers know they care.

From that starting point, as the story developed, they could then have carried out further media interviews, after they had gathered the facts and knew what action they were going to take. .



Silence breaks

Eventually, on Wednesday (21/3) – the fifth day of the crisis - the silence was finally broken, with, somewhat predictably, Facebook posts from both Mr Zuckerberg and Ms Sandberg.

For a post that had been so long in the making it is interesting that there is no hint of an apology.  


Ms Sandberg shared Mr Zuckerberg’s post and added a few words of her own. She clearly found ‘sorry’ an equally hard word to say.

You can’t help but feel it was a sanitised response which had more than a little input from the lawyers.


At last an apology

But it has to be said that Mr Zuckerberg performed better when he was interviewed on CNN later that same day. Finally, Facebook users had an apology.

“I’m really sorry this has happened,” he told presenter Laurie Segall.

That said, there is an overwhelming feeling that if this was evidence of the CEO finally stepping up and getting a grip on this situation, it was too little too late.



Cover up

The Facebook leaders’ disappearing acts and reluctance to apologise are clearly the biggest issues with its crisis response.

But it is also worth pointing out that the company appears to have tried to cover-up and spin its way out of the crisis.

It was no coincidence that Facebook announced last week that it had suspended Cambridge Analytica and announced it in a blog post the day before the story broke. After all, it had waited three years to disclose the incident.

It than appears to have tried to stop those stories. The New York Times reported that during a week of enquiries with Facebook the social network ‘downplayed the scope of the leak and questioned whether the data still remained out of its control’.  

Additionally, according to The Guardian, ‘Facebook’s external lawyers warned the Observer that it was making false and defamatory allegations’ – not the open and transparent image that organisations should strive for during a crisis.



As for Cambridge Analytica, well, its crisis response appears to have fluctuated between the bizarre to the ridiculous.

It has now suspended chief executive, Alexander Nix, who used the following explanation for his comments which were captured by an undercover reporter and aired on Channel 4.

He said: “In playing along with this line of conversation, and partly to spare our ‘client’ from embarrassment, we entertained a series of ludicrous hypothetical scenarios. I am aware how this looks, but it is simply not the case.”

And its social media response has at times been all over the place. Tweets refuting the ‘mischaracterization (SIC) and false allegations’ have been mixed with others which suggested many other firms use the same tactics and that those asking questions were simply envious.

Perhaps its time would have been better spent analysing different crisis media management strategies.



But back to the focus of this blog: Facebook. It is undoubtedly in the midst of huge problem – a problem its crisis media management approach has only served to intensify.


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