Facebook’s Annus Horribilis - Veritas Communications
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Facebook’s Annus Horribilis

How’s 2018 treating you so far? If, dear reader, you happen to be Mark Zuckerberg, you may consider that a rhetorical question.

Hard to believe that it’s been not quite three weeks since the New York Times and The Guardian published their blockbuster stories on the great privacy breach of 2014 – “How Trump Consultants Exploited The Facebook Data of Millions” was the Times’ blackline. Since then, Facebook stock (and entire exchanges with it) has been the mother of all rollercoasters and, at one point, saw its market cap tank by almost $50 billion. That’s USD with a ‘B,’ folks.

Those of us who specialize in crisis management are the closest train wreck watchers when stuff like this goes down, for a couple of reasons. One, to thank the stars that we’re (hopefully) able to observe from the outside and not hunkered down in the midst of the firestorm, and two, because they inevitably provide teachable moments – and/or the chance to snark off about how “those clowns really blew it, and boy, if I was running the show, here’s what I would have blah blah blah … “

I’ll stick to the former, here. And I’ll keep it to a couple of the more notable observations, from where I sit.

Five days: that’s the length of time from the story beginning to break until we finally heard from and saw Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Five. Whole. Days. Nature abhors a vacuum, but that’s nothing like the news cycle: it’s gonna get filled, with you or without you, and the longer you take to get your messaging in play, the bigger the toll in the interim – and possibly the longer term as well.

Regardless of where Zuckerberg happened to be on planet Earth, I’m willing to bet there was probably some kind of technological hookup that could have brought him into mainstream and social media. I hear that Facebook Live thing works pretty well …

In his absence, initial comments seemed to suggest that Facebook was going to play the victim card, once they were forced into the story (following earlier attempts to try and chill it with legal threats). “Lied to” by Cambridge Analytica and its henchmen were the first words put into play. While that may well be true, the optics of buck-passing amid a crisis of potentially existential proportion would have been a colossal mistake.

But what this suggests to me is that this was the in-the-bunker debate that was playing out between Zuckerberg, other FB brass and their respective legal and PR counsel. “But it’s all right there in the user agreements” was, I’m sure, the rallying cry of the legal types. “We’re guilty of nothing.” Again, arguably true – granting permission to share your personal information is buried in the fine print we all ignore before taking that “Which Superhero Are You Most Like?” quiz – but that’s still the utterly wrong message to send to tens of millions of users who feel they’ve been duped.

And the fact that these debates were likely raging on highlights perhaps the most head-scratching point among all of this: they didn’t have a crisis contingency plan already in the can. For a global behemoth whose business model rests entirely upon the gathering and exploitation of personal data (what, you thought it was all about kitten pics?), this should have been mapped out years ago.

What do we do if this issue blows up? What’s the first message we want in play? Who speaks, through which channels, and how do we sustain it? These are core fundamentals for any operation with potentially damaging vulnerabilities, especially one which has had issues with privacy and data mining concerns in the past.

Zuckerberg did a pretty good media blitz – eventually – and Facebook has been quite consistent in echoing the core message since, namely “We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t, then we don’t deserve to serve you.”

Full page ads have followed, as have pledges to do better and now new tools to help Facebook users safeguard their personal deets. Zuckerberg will testify before the U.S. Congress next Wednesday, and will likely have to do the same before a growing number of government bodies around the world. And many lawmakers are now talking about new levels of regulation around privacy and social media platforms.

Will Facebook get permanently deleted? I doubt it. But it has now suffered the biggest blow since its inception. Smarter communications would not have made the whole thing go away – the fundamental problems are way bigger than that – but the reputational bruising could have been significantly lessened, if some basics had been better executed out of the gate.

Bob Reid is Director of Brand Reputation at Veritas, and a weekly commentator on communications, branding and media issues with his “Touchdowns & Fumbles” feature every Friday morning on Newstalk 1010 in Toronto and across Canada on The Morning Show on Global TV. For more, follow @VeritasComm on Twitter.