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Friday, 23 March 2018

Facebook’s epic PR fail – how not to handle a crisis

By Liz Coyle-Camp, managing director, E=MC2 Public Relations

Facebook’s sudden fall from grace in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica dirty-tricks data scandal is a lesson in how not to manage a crisis.

The social networking giant’s failure to apologise quickly when the story broke and explain to its 50+million ‘violated’ customers it had messed up is proving to be more disastrous for the company than the data breach. CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s deafening five-day silence spoke volumes. It sent a message that Facebook had willingly allowed a controversial ‘behavioural change’ firm to harvest its customer base, supporting political dirty tricks campaigns that helped win the Trump Presidency and the Brexit vote.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s long absence became a news story in itself and when he did speak up, it was too little too late. Facebook’s customers, duped by a devious app posing as a personality quiz, as well as  advertisers, investors and regulators wanted a heart-felt apology and assurances that this would never happen again. What they heard instead was legalistic corporate-speak - a total disconnect from the company that’s stated mission is “To make the world more open and connected.”

So how should Zuckerberg have handled the crisis? Very simply, he should have been out there apologising, taking ownership of the problem and bravely facing the music when the story broke.  Customers, advertisers and investors wanted to hear words of  ‘remorse’ and  reassurance.  They wanted Facebook’s leader to ‘lead’, not retreat.  

What next?

The damage has been done. Facebook can’t win back the public trust and confidence it had before the scandal broke. Customers have become sceptics. No-one trusts Facebook or Zuckerberg anymore. Overnight, users have become cautious and protective about their data and rightly so. Zuckerberg once said people who willingly hand over their personal data are "dumb f----".

So the fall-out has begun. The hashtag #deletefacebook is trending on Twitter and the number of searches on variations of the term “delete Facebook” which increased 423% in the days after the scandal broke, continue to rise. Stocks are sliding with $60 billion wiped off Facebook’s market value in the past few days as investors fear a fall-out of customers and advertisers from the social network and tougher regulation. Worrying rumours that the mega corporation listens to users' phone calls are in the social conversation. The Federal Trade Commission is now investigating Facebook’s user-data practices and both the UK and European parliaments are baying for Zuckerberg to give evidence… and so the PR nightmare goes on.