Facebook’s main failing: being too slow to share data-leak truth

The irony isn’t lost on anyone. The globe’s premier social sharing platform failed to share in the crucial days following a crisis. Instead, executives remained silent, allowing the media to tell the story.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had a public reckoning when he was forced to address U.S. lawmakers to explain his company’s role in the mishandling of information associated with 50 million users. He finally admitted he knew in 2015 that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had misused Facebook data, but didn’t do enough to prevent harm, including “fake news, foreign interference in elections and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy.”

Zuckerberg spoke words that should have come sooner, particularly from someone who runs a company that touches the daily lives of two billion people: “It was my mistake, and I am sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.”

Previously, Facebook had blamed rogue elements for the data misuse rather than its business practices.

Zuckerberg wasn’t yet born in 1982 when Johnson & Johnson (J&J) wrote the book on crisis management after seven people died from cyanide-laced Extra Strength Tylenol. J&J immediately pulled its bestselling product off store shelves – 31 million bottles – launched an investigation and spoke to media. The outcome was that J&J shares dropped, but only briefly.

J&J demonstrated empathy, accountability and action – putting consumers before its bottom line. Maple Leaf Foods did the same during a deadly tainted meat scandal in 2008, with the CEO going as far as saying he ignored the advice of lawyers and accountants in his handling of the crisis. Both companies’ priority was to ensure safety and reassure the public.

The simple fact is the truth always comes out, and if you don’t tell your story, someone else surely will – and then you may be in trouble.

Executives might not realize it, but their parents – with one important childhood lesson – equipped them to manage crises: “If you tell the truth, I won’t be mad.”

It’s basic human nature. People have a tough time being mad at someone who tells the truth, apologizes and does the right thing. Yet even with proven formulas for managing crises, companies get it wrong.

Last year, United Airlines produced an excellent example of a poorly managed crisis when it called airport authorities to remove a reluctant passenger as part of its seat reassignment policy. The authorities rough-handled the passenger to the point of bleeding and then dragged him off the flight. In turn, United’s CEO failed to demonstrate accountability, and the airline’s stock took a billion-dollar hit.

United’s and Facebook’s crises are starkly similar: both companies relinquished control to third parties; both CEOs failed to appropriately address their company’s roles, investigate the matter and reassure consumers; and both companies lost public confidence.

In fact, both companies made matters worse following their respective crises, one by siding with flight crews without investigating, the other by giving the false impression it investigated data misuse and acted, when all it did was try to pre-empt a news report that was about to reveal the scandal.

It took a public outcry for the CEOs to finally admit error and take steps to prevent future mishaps.

That’s all after the fact. Had United and Facebook tested their policies and procedures, they might have identified and corrected vulnerabilities, particularly when it comes to third-party involvement.

Consider another childhood lesson, when your parents encouraged you to think things through before acting. In the corporate world, that means doing a vulnerability audit of matters with high crisis potential, high risk to reputation and high public interest.

Zuckerberg’s situation has it all and then some, given the matter of the U.S. election. And as users the world over delete their accounts, one wonders: had Facebook followed its own business model of sharing, would the public have been more forgiving? Crisis management studies say yes. 

Renu Bakshi (renu@renubakshi.com) is a senior communications strategist who specializes in crisis audits, crisis management and media training.