Mr. Zuckerberg Goes To Washington: A PR View

Mark Zuckerberg’s trip to Washington this week marked a high-stakes PR challenge for the Facebook CEO as well as its brand. After months of negative coverage following the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal and a series of half-hearted public responses, Zuck faced the music. So how’d he do?

Above all, Zuckerberg was well prepared. Some might even say too prepared, given the frequency with which he prefaced answers with the questioner’s title. In fact, “Senator” and “Congressman” were used more than any other words. That, plus Zuckerberg’s flat, emotion-free affect gave his answers a stilted, overcoached quality.

Facebook came prepared

But for an occasion like a meeting with Congress, overpreparation beats the opposite. The Facebook communications and policy teams clearly left nothing to chance. A shot of Zuckerberg’s notes, which an AP photographer managed to snap when he left the room for a break, revealed neatly typed message points on every conceivable topic. (It also raised an interesting question about his right to – well, privacy.) Zuckerberg’s seat was even supplied with an extra cushion – possibly to make him look taller and more authoritative.

Mostly, he stuck to the script, patiently elaborating on key points over and over. In response to questions, he repeated that Facebook doesn’t feel it violated the 2011 consent decree about user privacy; that it has a reasonable attitude toward regulation; and that Facebook doesn’t actually sell data – technically true, of course, but lacking context.

The first day of testimony was highlighted by awkward moments that showed the Senate Committee’s relative lack of sophistication about digital advertising and privacy issues. Zuckerberg seemed a little baffled by the ignorance of some questioners, which gave rise to plenty of mean tweets and gifs about the average age of the Senate committee members.

Jokes notwithstanding, there were plenty of landmines during the two days of hearings. Senator Lindsey Graham’s queries about how much Facebook’s offering overlaps with other platforms like Twitter or Snapchat may have seemed naive, but there are antitrust issues lurking behind them. And on day two, House Committee members were far more aggressive than their Senate colleagues, asking pointed questions about the nuances of web-tracking, data-sharing by third-party apps, and underage users.

The best thing that Zuckerberg did was convey a sincere sense of responsibility for Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of data and Russia’s misinformation campaign on the platform. At times he showed real indignation. He reminded his audience regularly of Facebook’s humble beginnings in his Harvard dorm. He wasn’t defensive or prideful; in fact, his insistence that Facebook would welcome the right kind of regulation was disarming, at least on the face of it.

Media company or agnostic tech platform?

Maybe most importantly, Zuckerberg edged a little closer to identifying Facebook as a media company. He still contends that it is, above all, a technology platform “because the primary thing that we do is have engineers who write code and build product and services for other people.” Yet when the question was whether Facebook is responsible for the content shared on the platform, Zuckerberg was unequivocal: “I believe the answer to that question is yes.” This represents a more mature Zuck and an evolution of Facebook’s communication of its role and responsibility. But if the goal is reputation rehabilitation, the hearings were just the beginning.

This is where the hard part begins. Facebook-watchers remember Zuckerberg’s past apologies, and regulators have eagle eyes on that 2011 consent decree. On the serious matters of user privacy and outside manipulation, after the carefully constructed apology tour and two days of choreographed testimony, Facebook must walk the walk.

Crisis Management: When The Crisis Is The CEO

It’s hard out there for a CEO.

Recently, we witnessed a week’s worth of drip-drip-drip coverage about Yahoo chief Scott Thompson’s resume. The gaffe culminated in Thompson’s resignation after only four months on the job. But the controversy, on the surface, wasn’t about whether he’d faked an advanced degree, or falsely claimed Ivy League credentials. No, this was about his undergraduate major.

The headline-making departure last month was that of Best Buy chief Brian Dunn. Maybe it wasn’t surprising, but it was breathtakingly abrupt, amid unsavory and unsettling rumors of “improper conduct.”

Granted, each of these, and other “CEOs behaving badly” situations was really about company performance. And in Thompson’s case, the growing crisis wasn’t handled well. But it’s obvious that the stakes are higher than ever for the head guy. Controversy over executive pay, diminishing public confidence, and the news cycle have conspired to make even seemingly trivial missteps a big story.

The implications of the new, more perilous chief executive role aren’t lost on those who recruit and install the top guns, or on professional communicators. Corporate boards will redouble efforts to troubleshoot potential problems in advance. And it’s only right that chief executive prospects should be vetted with the zeal and rigor of (most) presidential candidates. Every weakness, peccadillo, or hint of scandal can, and will, come out.

At a time when a strong, communications-savvy CEO is more needed than ever, corporate strategists and PR specialists will become even more cautious about putting the head guy out there. A deep and visible executive bench is a strong communications strategy, and, these days, good risk management. But it’s more likely that access to the executive team will simply become scarcer for journalists.

The bottom line, of course, is that most of the responsibility lies with the chief executive. The occupant of the corner office needs to acknowledge his/her shortcomings, seek the best advice from those outside the inner circle, and be aware of when a problem or crisis has grown beyond their capability to address it. A terrific example of the “new” CEO who actively seeks counsel around his own leadership development is that of Mark Zuckerberg, as detailed in a recent New York Times piece. Yet, Zuckerberg, who will be 28 next week, is an anomaly even for a technology company.

The imperial CEO is long dead, and well he should be. And maybe we shouldn’t feel too sorry for the guys who can generally pull a ripcord on a golden parachute and go home to a fat bank account. But it’s possible that the pendulum has swung too far from the command-and-control days. The margin for error is so thin that you have to ask yourself, at some point, who’s going to want this job? When accountability turns into scapegoating, it’s a losing proposition for everyone.

Facebook Privacy Fix Is A Very Public Problem

As the mother of social networks, Facebook has struggled with privacy issues. It hasn’t gotten credit for many of the tools it offers, possibly because many users don’t understand them. So, the bar was raised a while back when CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised “a simpler model for privacy control.”

What happened instead was a very mixed reaction to its new privacy settings, and a fresh PR problem for the company. This time, it’s not just the user backlash that greets any Facebook change. There’s a measure of genuine confusion, doubt about its intentions, and a modest public relations blunder by Zuckerberg himself.

Given the build-up to the unveiling of the new privacy tool, the expectation was that Facebook would help users tighten their controls and limit the information they share with the world. Instead, the opposite message was communicated. It’s not all bad. The transition wizard forces you to examine your settings. That’s good, because many people, like me, signed up ages ago and have forgotten what we did then, if anything.

But instead of offering options based on a user’s current settings, the transition tool encourages its own recommendations. And, guess what? The recommended defaults nearly always urge sharing with “friends of friends” or “everyone.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not eager for “everyone” to see photos of my young daughter. But, that’s what Facebook recommends.

So does did CEO Mark Zuckerberg. To call attention to the change, Zuckerberg adjusted his own settings. Good PR move, right? But perhaps he didn’t realize that his family photos and contacts would be available to “friends of friends.” Or maybe he was just setting an example in following the recommended defaults. Facebook claims that he always meant to make certain areas accessible to everyone. Yet, mysteriously, after and others rifled through them and posted many online, Zuckerberg’s settings were changed to make personal photos off-limits.

I can’t blame Zuckerberg for his about-face. Who wouldn’t want to keep their personal photos safe from prying eyes…and snarky gossip websites? The good news for users is that the online community has jumped into the breach. Within a day or two of the launch of the new settings, hundreds of blog posts appeared with clear, how-to tips and guidelines on protecting privacy and identity on Facebook. And, to be fair, Facebook’s put plenty of information on its own site.

In explaining the default, Facebook told Reuters that making updates available to everyone is “the way the world is moving.” That may be true, but in pushing members to open up online, Facebook is both becoming more Twitter-like, and seeming to bow to pressure to monetize the wealth of personal user information on the site. Both risk eliminating the very thing that many members found so appealing about it in the first place.