Zuckerberg's Congress appearance was an example of age-old PR coaching in an AI age

This week Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress; routine for some CEOs but the magnitude of the allegations against Facebook are so gargantuan that the mere news that he was to appear made headlines.

Zuckerberg's PR coaching and preparedness are a long way from his sweaty performance eight years ago, writes Christine Arthur
Zuckerberg's PR coaching and preparedness are a long way from his sweaty performance eight years ago, writes Christine Arthur

But for the PR industry surely it isn’t him turning up that is the story, but how he conducted himself.

Zuckerberg was smart, measured, calm, assured and answered every question with humility and an articulation that made the hoody-wearing, perspiring, stumbling character of a few years ago unrecognisable.

But Zuckerberg hasn’t done this overnight, he’s been coached within an inch of his life.

And how it shows.

Eight years ago, in an interview for the D8 (now Recode) conference, Zuckerberg walked onto stage ready for an interview that was probably pitched to him as an opportunity to talk about new features, growth and the future of Facebook.

The first question was about Facebook abusing the privacy of its users. His responses seemed unprepared and he got caught out quite a few times by the experienced journalist interviewers.

In the end he started to nervously sweat and has to remove his trademark hoody.

Fast forward to 2018 and Facebook is one of the most powerful companies in the world.

However, it is going through the biggest crisis of its short existence with billions wiped off its value when it was announced that the company was being investigated over its privacy practices.

And Zuckerberg is to testify before Congress.

It is a situation that even the most experienced CEOs would have nightmares thinking about. The difference is that this time Zuckerberg was visibly prepared.

He appeared in a suit, he was calm and collected and for months, if not years, he had been preparing for this.

He’d even hired some of the top advisors of Obama’s successful election campaigns including Joel Benenson.

When he took to the podium it became an absolute lesson in how good preparation and training can develop anyone’s ability to deal with difficult questions.

When you’re a multinational company and the current political climate is to target major players you must prepare for all eventualities.

The effect can even be positive (Facebook’s value rose after its CEO’s appearance).

Zuckerberg’s answers were structured and demonstrated his expertise in the area – instantly. Congress members were at a disadvantage, making Zuckerberg seem even more impressive.

He even seized the opportunity to hint at measures that Facebook is planning to take to tackle each issue.

This appearance isn’t just a landmark challenge to the biggest social media company on the planet.

Inevitably, in an age of GDPR, fake news, social media and accountability there will be more challenges to major companies.

The lesson to learn from Mark Zuckerberg’s turnaround is that issues should be prepared for not reacted to, that image can be improved, that answers can be scripted and various scenarios rehearsed - and that in this globally connected consumer world the age-old skill of media coaching is going to be more valuable than ever.

Christine Arthur is managing director of McCann Central PR & Social

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