To begin fixing his public relations problem, Mark Zuckerberg should stop using Facebook.
By that, I don’t mean the boy billionaire should join fellow Silicon Valley swells Elon Musk and Brian Acton in backing the #DeleteFacebook movement. Musk, the thin-skinned founder of Tesla, holds a grudge against Zuckerberg for bad-mouthing his rocket ship. Acton sold his WhatsApp creation to Facebook for $19 billion several years ago, and today — having apparently graduated from the Trump University Charm School — is now calling on others to boycott the network.
While Mr. Zuckerberg shouldn’t abandon the social network he founded in 2004 — with or without the Winklevoss brothers — in his dorm room Harvard, he should seriously think about relegating Facebook to backup communicating status as he wends his way through his current public relations thicket.
Two weeks ago, The New York Times and London Observer both blasted out front-page stories detailing how the personal data of 50 million users was stolen by a Republican-backed research firm, Cambridge Analytica, and used to help Donald Trump get elected President.
In a ham-handed attempt to get out in front of the story, Mr. Zuckerberg used his communications medium of choice, Facebook — surprised? — to file a late night blog post announcing that Facebook had suspended Cambridge Analytica for misappropriating user data. That attempt to preempt did little but energize journalists to probe further. And since the story hit, Facebook has been besieged.
The Zuckerberg public relations response has been typical of Silicon Valley hotshots, who know lots about technological communications but little about human interaction.
How did Mr. Zuckerberg confront the Barbarians at Facebook’s gate?
By going radio silent.
For five excruciating days, while the media continually bashed Facebook’s brazen violation of user trust, critics lit up Twitter with calls for Zuckerberg’s removal or the company’s downsizing, with whiny Facebook employees publicly wondering if they should transfer from the primary social network product to other less-tainted areas of the company. Zuckerberg, meanwhile, said nothing. Nor did anyone else in Facebook’s executive ranks, most notably the CEO’s typically loquacious right-hand woman, Sheryl Sandberg. In the face of all those Barbarians at Facebook’s Gate, Ms. Sandberg, for once, wasn’t leaning in.
Finally, with Congressional jackals calling for his head, the fallen Facebook founder reemerged — on Facebook. In a long and winding diatribe, Mr. Zuckerberg acknowledged that Facebook had failed in its responsibility to protect user data and “if we can’t, then we don’t deserve to serve you.” He went on to describe the steps Facebook would take to work to ensure that a similar breach doesn’t happen again.
Mr. Zuckerberg’s attempt at written redemption only seemed to fan the flames of his denouncers. By week’s end the Wizard of Facebook had moved out from behind the curtain to speak — for 30 minutes on the phone — with Times’ reporters and then later to address an internal employee gathering.
So what should Zuck do now to slither out of Facebook’s worst crisis in 14 years, and what can he learn from this ordeal to aid him and the company in the future?
In a phrase: Go direct.
What was needed here, what is needed in virtually every similar catastrophic calamity that occasionally confronts an organization is face-to-face communication. People need to see the top dog; they need to hear from him or her; and they need to be reassured by his or her demeanor, grasp of the situation and his or her confidence in getting through it.
In a crisis, communicating via social media is an important element in a communications plan. But it should be secondary to more direct, face-to-face communications to primary stakeholders.
In the Cambridge Analytica case, Zuckerberg must now summon the courage to depart his Menlo Park cocoon and venture forth to meet his adversaries: newspaper and TV journalists, institutional investors and Congressional inquisitors. He must tell them what the company knows so far, what it’s doing to correct the problem, and how it has no plans to succumb to the wishes of its critics by cutting back or reimagining or downsizing away from the money-making operations that have made it a “winner” as opposed to foundering rivals like Twitter and Snapchat.
In other words, the only way for the Facebook CEO to begin to put this crisis behind him is to go direct.
Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, author and teacher for 40 years. He is author of the Pearson text “The Practice of Public Relations,” now in its 13th edition, and co-author of “Rethinking Reputation" and "Idea Wise.” He may be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.