Communication lessons from Facebook’s data crisis

When facing a loss of consumer trust, it’s imperative to respond quickly and efficiently—and to choose the right spokesperson for the job. How has the social media giant performed?

Even huge organizations specializing in communication are vulnerable to making mistakes when faced with a crisis.

When it was revealed that Facebook was engaged in a situation of alleged data misuse by Cambridge Analytica, the world was shaken by the lack of transparency and eerie silence that followed the breaking news, capturing international headlines. The company turned what could have been a case of proactive issue management in 2015—when it learned of this data problem—into a full-blown, reactive crisis.

We live in an age of 24-hour digital connectivity with an expectation for immediate response time, especially when it comes to the tech giant that has defined the social realm. Facebook’s approach to the situation is a classic scenario of taking a back seat when a company could have—and should have—been the driver at the onset of an issue.

Here are four takeaways following the Facebook debacle that companies of all sizes can learn from:

1. Don’t gamble with a potential crisis.

When a company is faced with a controversial decision, though it isn’t currently a crisis, it could easily become one. Know that however the dice rolls can have ultimate future consequences.

Facebook was at a crossroads in 2015 when it learned that user data acquired by Cambridge Analytica was misused. Even though an agreement was made between the two parties that Cambridge Analytica would delete the information, it left Facebook vulnerable to exposure and ridicule regarding transparency.

A company choosing to withhold information in a heated situation should always be prepared for the chips to fall either way. That means, having plans in place for all possible outcomes, and being able to execute promptly.

2. Project transparency to foster trust.

Facebook was challenged by a “lesser of two evils” situation, whereby the company could have proactively admitted to third-party access to consumer data when it occurred, or the latter chosen path of withholding information that became publicly revealed through other sources years later. Its loss in public trust, due to a lack of transparency, is aa bigger loss than whataver gains it achieved by putting off admission of a mistake at the onset.

In an Entrepreneurs column, Forbes notes that “the most valuable business commodity is trust.” Trust is an immeasurable currency, both externally and internally; once lost, a company must climb a mountain of challenges to reestablish its integrity.

3. Provide a response within 24 hours.

It is not always feasible to respond to a crisis immediately, especially when a need for legal counsel exists. Yet, the longer a company waits to publicly address an issue, the less control they maintain of their public perception: Silence breeds skepticism.

In the case of Facebook, its silence for multiple days allowed headlines to overshadow the company’s voice. The aftermath resulted in a social campaign encouraging users to delete their accounts, a tank of Facebook’s stock value, an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission and other intangible losses.

A crisis should first be addressed within 24 hours. While a company may not be able to divulge detailed information, an initial statement must express the main points of acknowledging the situation, a sense of urgency in resolving the issue and empathy to demonstrate humanity in the organization.

4. The face of a crisis can shape its future.

The first voice to speak on behalf of a company will have a lasting impact. The selected spokesperson must have a stance of authority that meets the expectation of its audience (i.e. customers/clients, stakeholders).

This is especially the case when involving a high-profile company leader such as Mark Zuckerberg, who appeared to remain in the shadows for days before addressing the public. Rather, the first spokesperson to comment on behalf of Facebook was its VP and deputy general counsel Paul Grewal. The consumer outrage that followed this approach demonstrates that the public can be highly critical of, not only the actual crisis at hand, but also by whom the matter is communicated.

What are you taking away from Facebook’s crisis of trust, PR Daily readers?

Vanessa Fioravante is a co-principal of ANDER & Co.

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