Thumbs up? 13 crisis communicators on Mark Zuckerberg's apology tour

PRWeek reached out to a baker's dozen of top crisis wranglers for their take on the Facebook CEO's post on the Cambridge Analytica crisis and subsequent series of interviews. (Responses have been edited for space and clarity).

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Aaron Gordon, partner, Schwartz Media Strategies
Mark Zuckerberg posing the question, "Are there other Cambridge Analyticas out there?" sent the message that they’re unsure what’s going on in their own backyard. That’s not the way to instill confidence.

Facebook stumbled out of the gate from a communications standpoint, but they’ve built a platform that’s pervasive in everyday life and designed to adapt over time. By inviting sensible regulation, initiating tighter internal controls, and fine-tuning its messaging, Facebook should be fine in the long run.

Richard Levick, CEO, Levick
Zuckerberg gets some points for finally showing up, but it’s never a good thing when you have to send a search party looking for leadership.

Crisis abhors a vacuum, and I find their response late and disingenuous. He says as soon as they were alerted by the media, they acted. Really? You have to be alerted by the media to know what’s happening inside your company?

Ryan Brack, founder, Future Forward Partners
Facebook is in the midst of an existential crisis: users are dropping the service while Congress is threatening hearings, regulation, and fines. [On Wednesday] they needed a CEO response as strong as the situation is serious. They partially succeeded.

Zuckerberg did the two things necessary to minimize Facebook being seen as hostile by regulators around the world: he expressed a willingness to testify and agreed to legislation like the Honest Ads Act. However, this means little to users who are in most need of clear and direct assurances. Missing from his 936-word statement were five simple letters that would have carried more weight than all the others, "Sorry."

Peter Himler, founder, Flatiron Communications
Watching Zuckerberg and reading his cumbersome TL;DR answers, it becomes clear why the Facebook CEO is reluctant to do media interviews: he’s simply not all that engaging. He tends to ramble in a geeky kind of way.

Did it work? I’d say yes, in terms of quelling the firestorm that enveloped the company. Will the criticism end? No. Both the U.S. and U.K. legislative and regulatory authorities are on the case, while reporters who keep close tabs on Facebook are parsing his answers and coming up with questions. Then there’s the U.S. special counsel. The stock will likely stabilize, but it’s hard to estimate the residual damage to users’ confidence in and engagement with the platform. Time will tell.

Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO, Ruder Finn
Mark Zuckerberg was right to address the data breach issue head-on and note the policy changes that had been made to prevent such an issue from happening again. However, his "sorry" apology rings hollow across the headlines.

It is clear that fake news is not just something we can laugh off anymore, there is legitimate concern about its ability to affect decisions and outcomes of events. This is a pivotal point for Facebook’s reputation, but it is also a real opportunity for Mark Zuckerberg to make clear and measurable changes to the way Facebook handles fake news, and for him to become a strong voice for social media companies’ responsibility to society.

Seth Linden, president, Dukas Linden Public Relations
Facebook has an obligation to be transparent, open, and honest about the facts at hand. The CEO needs to communicate. This is a key tenant of any crisis response. The silence is ironic, given that the firm changed the way we communicate and prides itself on providing new communications platforms.

The continued silence suggests the company is hiding information, or at worst, doesn't know the extent of the problem. A public response is required. Companies do not last forever, and even Facebook cannot act as though it is immune from major threat because of its reach. The phone and cable companies have learned this the hard way.

Chris Allieri, principal, Mulberry & Astor
At some point in the story of the company, Facebook forgot that it’s a platform powered by people. In a quest for cash, Zuckerberg and team sold us out, plain and simple.

His Facebook-update-cum-PR-statement was long-winded and riddled with PR and legal speak. The interviews were solidly prepped but devoid of any real connection and accountability for what has happened.

Maybe a bigger problem is that Gen Z has no interest in the platform, with only 9% preferring it over other social media networks. That coupled with a "big brother" narrative poses a huge problem.

Eleanor McManus, cofounder and partner, Trident DMG
Zuckerberg’s statements were meant to comfort all the stakeholders who matter to Facebook – users, investors, employees, advertisers, regulators, and policymakers. Although the announcement of a third-party app audit and new features to better educate users on where their data has gone are good steps, overall, Zuckerberg’s statements raised more questions than they answered.

First, they came too late. While Zuckerberg remained silent for days, the news and statements about the noisy departure of [security chief] Alex Stamos filled the void, allowing the Stamos story to convey the messages that Facebook does not do enough to secure user data or win user trust. Second, they ignored the elephant in the room: that providing third-party apps access to its platform for the last 10-plus years is central to its business model. Third, they failed to give users comfort or understanding about what to do about all their user data that has gone out the door all of that time.

Christopher Harvin, partner, Sanitas International
While a bit late in his delivery, Zuckerberg rightly faced the issues, expressed authentic regret, and, importantly, pledged corrective action. He is in a difficult position as various government agencies investigate what happened, so his ability to expound on his statement is likely limited. A lot of what occurred may have potential national security and legal implications, so Zuckerberg will be well-served to work closely with his legal and communications teams and to be fully transparent with government investigators, including Congress.

Bill Nowling, MD and partner, Lambert, Edwards & Associates
The issue in the room is the crisis of fake news. Facebook has played a role in this crisis because, simply, it is the largest content platform in the world. In his apology, Mark Zuckerberg accepted responsibility for the data breach, but there is a much bigger issue here. For the apology to resonate with Facebook's 1-billion-plus active members, Zuckerberg must follow up with clear action that goes beyond this immediate crisis and addresses the bigger issue.  

Sean Smith, EVP, reputation management practice lead, Porter Novelli
Zuckerberg’s messaging was fine, but it was nearly two years too late. In all of this, he failed the test of public leadership and his company and foundation have been significantly tarnished. Going forward, he should accept more responsibility for the role Facebook plays in safeguarding the fabric of our national community, accept more accountability for this breach of trust, and institute bold reforms.

Carreen Winters, chairman of reputation, MWWPR
Making the claim that Facebook didn’t know about the problem until the media told them is as damaging as the breach itself. Secondly, the brand that instilled the idea of instant gratification in the form of likes and shares took a full five days to respond-- a full five days.

Zuckerberg’s first response ran nearly 1,000 words, none of which included the word "sorry." The CNN interview felt more like Facebook Live than an actual interview and did little to inspire confidence that Facebook would ensure this doesn’t happen again.

Sandy Lish, principal and cofounder, Castle
Zuckerberg’s Facebook post was a comprehensive response that provides a lot of facts in an easy to understand way, making it good reference for media. Will the average person read it all? No. That’s why his appearance on CNN was so important. Zuckerberg needed to reassure the public in a genuine way, reiterating what happened and why he didn't say anything in 2015. In expressing his regrets, he ultimately acknowledged that Facebook should have been transparent sooner.

He held himself accountable and clearly outlined next steps within the investigation internally and externally. This was a defining moment for Zuckerberg and Facebook to lead the conversation on how we use and process social media.


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