Facing the music – is sorry really the hardest word?

(Posted on 12/04/18)

Facing the music – is sorry really the hardest word?

Mark Zuckerberg’s apparent reluctance to issue a full and frank apology when the Cambridge Analytica scandal first broke was frankly baffling to many PR experts. His initial response via a stilted Facebook post arguably did more harm than good as it failed either to address customer concerns or to admit responsibility. Further damaging revelations continued to build, while the number of Facebook users potentially affected spiralled ever higher, adding fuel to the fires of the negative news cycle. Effectively under siege, Mr Zuckerberg then conducted a few, limited interviews, further alienating a large proportion of the press who felt they had not only been misled, but were now also being excluded.

Facebook’s abject failure to put into practice an effective crisis communications strategy is not actually that unusual and shows that even the biggest brands with multi million pound budgets can be let down by inadequate preparation. 

The most junior PR should know the importance of senior personnel taking immediate responsibility when a crisis breaks. The first and most important rule is to show up – something Mr Zuckerberg signally failed to do. Next, it is essential to disclose all the damage, all at once, however bad it may be, followed by showing genuine, heart-felt remorse and revealing an effective action plan to put things right for the future.

Undoubtedly, the best move for Facebook would have been to hold a live press conference with Mr Zuckerberg at the centre of it, taking every question directed at him, however personally painful that might be and revealing just how extensive the problems are and detailing a proper strategy for dealing with them. It has been really interesting to note the ground Facebook has managed to make up since its CEO’s appearances in front of a congressional committee. Frequently accused in numerous memes of coming across as somewhat robotic, Mr Zuckerberg has earned praise for his performance, even from some of his fiercest critics. Clearly (finally) schooled diligently for hours by his highly trained team of advisers, he has come across not only as human but also open, honest, transparent and even humble – which has taken much of the media audience by surprise. Only time will tell how much of the earlier damage to the brand can be repaired.

Whether you are dealing with customers, stockholders or stakeholders, honesty is always the best policy and the speed and level of an appropriate response is absolutely key. Every brand should have a crisis communications strategy in place. Contact the Zebra team to see how we can help you plan yours.