Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg passed his trial by fire in front of Congress this week with flying colors, according to crisis communications experts.
The besieged chief executive fielded a broad range of questions from Senators on Tuesday. He apologized for allowing Cambridge Analytica to access tens of millions of users’ data and promised it would never happen again. Zuckerberg even told a few jokes during the hours-long grilling.
"It’s clear Zuckerberg was well prepared," says Jason Maloni, founder of JadeRoq. "If committee hearings are about political theater, Zuckerberg turned in a Hamiltonian performance."
Maloni, who also serves as a spokesman for embattled former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort, noted that Zuckerberg not only answered questions, but delivered a message about transparency and privacy controls. The CEO also said he is open to regulation and outlined the ways Facebook is implementing user privacy controls beyond regulatory compliance.
"This is about a good guy and a bad guy, and Zuckerberg has a very convenient bad guy in Cambridge," Maloni says.
In response to investigative reports by The New York Times and The Guardian on how Cambridge Analytica accessed the data of tens of millions of users, Facebook has unveiled transparency measures. It promised this month to label all political and issues ads and reveal who paid for them. Facebook also rallied behind the Honest Ads Act.
Cambridge Analytica reportedly accessed the information of up to 87 million Facebook users. Special counsel Robert Mueller is reportedly probing the consultancy as part of his broader investigation into Russian influence on the 2016 election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.
"Social media platforms like Facebook will enable greater insight and transparency into who’s buying ads, which is a wonderful way for Zuckerberg to be the good guy in this narrative," Maloni says.
Crisis wranglers also praised Zuckerberg for showing discipline and staying on message while using the company’s values and mission to build his arguments. Brian McLaughlin, a founder of Imperium Global Advisors, says Facebook had to develop a consistent message about its obligations "that he’s comfortable making in a public setting" that doesn’t contradict past statements or overpromise.
"It’s repetitive; it takes real stamina to sit and respond to questions for a sustained period of time," he adds. "You prepare as well as you can but you really don’t know until you’re there. It’s like playing in the Super Bowl. You have to be ready, but once you’re there, enduring the game, the setting, and the scene isn’t easy."
Before Tuesday’s marathon hearing, Facebook reportedly hired law firm WilmerHale and a group of consultants to coach Zuckerberg, who has been criticized for being "robotic." Reginald Brown, a former special assistant to President George W. Bush, led WilmerHale’s team.
Brown wasn’t immediately available for comment.
Dex Torricke-Barton, Zuckerberg’s onetime speechwriter, called his former boss’ performance "confident and assured."
While many journalists took issue with the times the Facebook CEO declined to answer a question and promised to follow up later, Torricke-Barton insists this strategy speaks more to the complexity of the issues than Facebook being secretive.
"Mark is an incredibly data-driven person," he says. "If I was writing for him and I didn’t have enough substantive points, he’d often tell me, ‘This is just a bunch of words.’ He looks for hard evidence and tangible facts to back up what he’s saying."
Zuckerberg spent much of his testimony explaining to the 42 senators on the Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees how Facebook works and why it works that way. In the hours after the hearing, many tech journalists were dismayed by the lack of sophisticated questions from lawmakers.
Torricke-Barton says Facebook is focusing on reassuring and educating the public and policymakers, many of whom "don’t necessarily understand its business model or engineering systems."
It’s likely to keep doing so, Torricke-Barton says.
"There is a tremendous amount of misinformation about what Facebook is doing and about what these individual crises have actually involved," he adds. "Facebook will have to keep repeating what exactly happened and what steps they’re taking to correct these problems until the community understands exactly what happened."
Friends in high places
Torricke-Barton adds that Zuckerberg’s testimony shows an evolution in his thinking that contrasts with earlier inventors, such as Nikola Tesla, who didn’t build relationships with the political world.
"[Zuckerberg] would obviously rather focus on the product and the day-to-day operations, but he also recognizes how important it is to talk to the regulator and policymaker audience," he says. "There’s no way you can build a product that changes the world without also bringing a lot of people along with you."
The company has consistently worked to develop relationships in Washington. McLaughlin notes that Facebook supported a bill to curb online sex trafficking that passed this year. Public records show it spent more than $3 million in the fourth quarter of 2017 alone on lobbying.
"Investing in developing relationships for the company over a sustained period of time is really what pays dividends," McLaughlin says. "Getting good follow up after this is equally important. The decisions on issues he’s being asked about are not being made today. They were made before today and after today. The prep and follow up is where investment is most important."
Zuckerberg’s efforts to converse privately with members of Congress may have also made the session easier, allowing him to get tough questions out of the way, Maloni says.
However, Facebook’s future will depend on the response from its user base, advertisers, lawmakers, and its board. Market forces, such as declining use by younger generations, will have a more significant impact than Zuckerberg’s testimony. A Facebook representative could not be immediately reached for comment.
"At the end of the day, the Facebook business case and value proposition to users and advertisers hasn’t fundamentally changed," McLaughlin says.
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