Crisis Communication – A Facebook Case Study

By Susie Adams

Home / Storyteller / Crisis Communication – A Facebook Case Study


What can we learn from Facebook’s Crisis Communication efforts?

Mark Zuckerberg traded his grey t-shirt for a well-tailored blue suit and marched on Washington D.C. this week. While he testified before both Houses of Congress, he made $3 billion. In the words of Charlie Sheen — “winning.” Facebook shares are still down 16% from the all-time high before the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but the 4.5% bump in stock price signals that Wall Street liked what they heard (and didn’t hear) from the 33-year-old titan of one of Silicon Valley’s tech behemoths.



A Rocky StartCrisis Communication - A Facebook Case Study

Facebook’s immediate response to the crisis in confidence was, as is usually the case in the immediate response to a crisis, a little bit shaky. A few days after the privacy scandal reached a fever pitch in mid-March, Zuckerberg was interviewed on CNN and by the New York Times. Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, also took the company’s message of contrition to other outlets.

Facebook’s message was one of apology which took steps to address privacy issues. But the delivery by Zuckerberg, who rarely speaks to the media, and Sandberg, who is a poised and effective media spokesperson, was not pitch-perfect. Some even called for Zuckerberg to step down saying he was not equipped to lead during this crisis.

When the Message and Delivery Don’t Match

Zuckerberg’s messages from the CNN interview were strong. He expressed regret and recognition of Facebook’s responsibility.

“So this was a major breach of trust and I’m really sorry that this happened. You know we have a basic responsibility to protect people’s data and if we can’t do that then we don’t deserve to have the opportunity to serve people.”

He talked about their responsibility to ensure that election meddling via their platform doesn’t happen.

“You can bet that we are really committed to doing everything that we need to to make sure that the integrity of those elections on Facebook is secured.”

On the Need For Regulation

“I actually am not sure we shouldn’t be regulated. I think in general technology is an increasingly important trend in the world and I actually think the question is more, what is the right regulation rather than “Yes or no, should it be regulated?”

But if you watch the interview, you might not be convinced that he completely means what he is saying. He was not comfortable and did not appear as contrite as the words indicated.

Activate the Crisis Communication Plan

Congress is calling; who answers the call?

In this same interview, Zuckerberg is asked if he would be willing to testify before Congress and he agrees that if called someone from Facebook would testify.

I would love to know how the decision was reached that Zuckerberg would be the person to testify. It is well known that he does not enjoy the spotlight. He rarely does media interviews or speaks in public. COO Sandberg, relishes the spotlight. She is a poised, confident, competent advocate for the company. In normal times that hierarchy works.

But these were not normal times. If Sheryl Sandberg had been dispatched to Capitol Hill, Mark Zuckerberg would have been skewered in his absence. The old phrase, “the buck stops here,” rings true in times of crisis. The person in charge has to show up and answer questions.

But the person in charge has to be prepared.

Crisis Communication Calls for Effective Planning

Charm School or Preparation?

In the days before the testimony publications from Vanity Fair to The New York Times wrote stories about Zuckerberg’s preparation characterizing it as charm school.

Let me be clear. The most gifted and experienced communicator and knowledgeable business leader would be foolish and perhaps derelict in his/her duties not to prepare (using outside counsel) prior to appearing before Congress. If you are a reluctant communicator, you especially need coaching and preparation.

According to published reports, Zuckerberg was prepped by a team of lawyers and outside consultants, including a former aide to President George W. Bush, on the types of questions he would be asked. He was not only coached on how to respond but how to pause and respond to interruptions. According to anonymous sources, Facebook set up mock hearings with communications team members and outside consultants roleplaying as members of Congress. I suspect these “hearings” were recorded and replayed for critiquing. Just as it should be.

Crisis Averted? How did it go?

I have not watched every hour of testimony, but I’ve watched quite a bit, as did Wall Street.

Zuckerberg did well. He was appropriately apologetic, accountable, thoughtful, polite, and patient. He was really patient. I don’t think any of these behaviors come naturally to him. Zuckerberg was knowledgeable and accommodating (to a point), but he did not cave to pressure. He deferred to his team when he didn’t know (or, more likely, didn’t want to provide) specific details. He did not agree to many specific solutions to address the problems. However, he agreed that he would have his “team work with you on that.”

I don’t watch a lot of Congressional testimony. But, when I do, I am amazed at some of the people who represent us in Washington. Don’t get me wrong; some of our brightest minds are there, and then…. as The Daily Show host Trevor Noah said of the hearing, “… he had to spend four hours explaining Facebook to senior citizens.”



Some Closing Thoughts


Susie Adams is the Director of Media Training at Interact Studio and teaches interactive classes on how to engage the media in an effective, authentic way. Connect with Susie for more information on upcoming classes or schedule a one-on-one coaching session. Congressional hearings can make or break scenarios. The disasters of the Enron hearings and the Major League Baseball steroid hearings come to mind. This was not that.

Mark Zuckerberg may be a college dropout (Harvard, in case you didn’t watch The Social Network), but he is an excellent student. Other leaders (and the teams that support them) would be wise to take a page from the Facebook preparation when they face crises of trust and accountability.