Carreen Winters
Carreen Winters

It’s been a rough week for Facebook. With an unprecedented service outage, followed by Congressional testimony from former product manager turned whistle-blower Frances Haugen, Facebook is back in the crosshairs. In response, Mark Zuckerberg took to his famous platform to share a 1,300+ word rebuttal—which was initially a note to all Facebook employees—in an apparent effort to shore up the company’s reputation. A quick perusal of the comments (more than 250,000 so far) reveals that this response did little to change minds. On the contrary, most seem even more entrenched in their opinion.

Whether you love it or hate it, there is no question that Facebook has slowly and steadily lost public trust and confidence (who can forget Zuckerberg’s much-maligned and much-memed Congressional testimony in 2018?). Lack of trust is the fundamental problem to be “fixed” if Facebook is to rehabilitate its reputation. And while the impulse to throw a kitchen sink's worth of defenses and data at the problem is understandable, it isn’t a sound strategy. The company’s transparency and brief response to the outage were effective. Zuckerberg’s defensive manifesto? Not so much.

Many companies choose to share an employee communication on an important topic publicly. It’s fast, it’s transparent—and that communication will probably get leaked anyway. To be effective, that internal communication must be crafted with the public in mind (a good rule of thumb for all internal communications). It’s important to remember that the rules of engagement have fundamentally changed… consumers are making decisions about brands based on shared values, not the actual product.

It doesn’t actually matter that “billions of people love our products,” which Zuckerberg cites in his closing. Those billions of people look to the CEO as the Chief Ethics & Empathy Officer, personifying the values of the brand, which makes tone and context of this piece particularly problematic.

Rather than take this moment to recast itself as an earnest solution seeker, Facebook offers a tone-deaf list of tactics and arguments to dismiss some pretty serious concerns: Facebook is dangerous to children. Facebook is responsible for polarization and lack of civil discourse in society. Facebook is a threat to democracy.

Zuckerberg dances around these allegations with a lengthy, even rambling, rebuttal where sincere acknowledgements (every negative experience is serious) are offset by insults like describing the concerns as “deeply illogical” or suggesting they don’t “make sense.” This form of passive-aggressive hostility, punctuated by rhetorical questions and Zuckerberg’s assignment of emotions to his employees, does little to make him sympathetic or regain the public trust.

Facebook would be well served to keep three things in mind:

  • Less is more. Beating back every concern and allegation with one Facebook post is a flawed strategy. The average reader doesn’t have the appetite for the minutia. Deeply engaged readers will follow links to get more information. Keep it focused on the core issues and keep it simple: acknowledge the concerns; briefly remind people of progress to date; acknowledge that there is more to do/outline the next steps. Reciting a laundry list of actions already taken, without acknowledging that the problems persist makes the response seem arrogant and out of touch.
  • Remember your real audience. The real audience is the fence-sitters—users (or even lovers) of Facebook who may be vulnerable to the “preponderance of the evidence” standard. If there are enough bad things, there must be something to it. We need to reassure them and give them “permission” to stay with the platform.
  • The right message, at the right time and in the right context. This response is just too much all at once. For example, Zuckerberg has raised valid and important points about regulation and opportunities for governments to be part of the solution. However, this comes across as “blame shifting” and only serves to underscore the lack of trust in Facebook to properly govern itself—which is the heart of their problem. This is also not the place for dueling data points about the mental wellbeing of teenage girls.


Carreen Winters is EVP, corporate reputation & chief strategy officer at MikeWorldWide.