The morning of March 21, 2018, during a long silence since the Cambridge Analytica scandal made headlines, Mark Zuckerberg and Co. knew they had one shot to own up to the situation.
As the CEO of Facebook, Zuck (with strategy and copy most assuredly workshopped by his PR team) could admit fault on behalf of the company for failing to protect user data and apologize for the lack of communication to users about its privacy shortcomings in 2014. It wouldn’t be easy, but the right – and first – public response could have begun a tidal shift in the tone of news coverage. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.
When Zuck made his long-awaited announcement in an excessively tedious post via Facebook (of course), the public responded negatively. Did he explain the timeline of the events in question? Yes. Did he offer up a clear presentation of the technical details? More or less. Did he outline steps to assure stronger data privacy in the future? Mostly.
What Zuck did not do was apologize – for keeping data privacy violations secret or for keeping users in the dark about the issue in the first place. Facebook failed the one-shot response test, and the public took him to task.
Balancing The Needs of Response
As PR professionals, we understand the difficulty of one-shot responses on behalf of clients.
We also understand that difficulty is never an excuse for a poorly timed or ineffectively crafted message. In times of crisis, modern target audiences (and the public at large) expect better. Specifically, they are looking for three elements in a brand’s response to a crisis: speed, simplicity and sincerity.
In a perfect world, when crafting a delicate message, speed really wouldn’t be the ideal starting place, right? I know what you’re thinking: “It’s better to make it right than to make it fast.” Unfortunately, people demand answers – and in today’s glance-and-pass news cycle, the faster they get those answers, the better.
In Facebook’s situation, Zuck and his team waited far too long to respond to the crisis. As the public spent many hours waiting for a response, people read – and developed their own – expectations of what Facebook’s ideal response would look like. While a faster response from Facebook’s PR team might not have been as “lawyer-ly,” it could have managed more of the conversation, instead of letting it be driven by speculation.
In order for a one-shot response to be effective, readers need to be able to quickly and easily grasp its message. This can be extremely difficult if the issue is fairly complex – and the Cambridge Analytica scandal is definitely complex. Many readers incorrectly understood the scandal as just another breach in the recent string of cybersecurity incidents. This was not the case, and Facebook needed the public to understand that.
Facebook actually got this element right for the most part. Although Zuck’s post was lengthy, it effectively explained the issue to readers, and while public attitudes after the fact remained the same, few people were arguing about the hard timeline of what occurred – or when.
Apologizing is not a factor in every PR crisis. Sometimes, the client really isn’t at fault. But in the wake of so many bad apologies (see: the #MeToo responses), it’s important for brands to understand why and how sincere apologies factor into quick message-controlling responses.
In response to Zuck’s Facebook post, the most notable public reaction has been to note his lack of apology. Don’t get me wrong: the organization may not have felt they needed to formally apologize for the issue. The problem here is, prior to the statement, a majority of the public not only wanted clarification – they demanded an explicit apology for being led blindly by the company for many years. The decision for Zuck to forego this in his post was tone deaf to the public reaction.
In sum, the Facebook scandal is just the most recent example of a failed one-shot response during a PR crisis. These things are tough to get exactly right, but you can nail a great response (or at least get close) if you focus on the right elements.