Breaking down Facebook’s communications playbook

Lessons learned from Facebook’s response to its data privacy crisis, and how you can use them to protect your own reputation – even if you aren’t a tech giant.

Since March 16th, when Facebook and Cambridge Analytica first made headlines, we have seen a whirlwind of movement from Team Facebook in an attempt to maintain its reputation amidst a growing swirl of challenges. Some of their actions have been successful, others not, but a clear playbook has emerged that the rest of us can pull lessons from in the event our own news cycle goes sideways.

The immediate aftermath

Lesson learned: Silence is not golden.

After the first stories broke that Cambridge Analytica illicitly accessed millions of user data, there was silence from Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg – for five days. For a company that exists almost entirely on the shoulders of its chief executive, this is unheard of.

In today’s world where news travels at the speed of Twitter, five days may as well be five years. You don’t have the luxury of sitting back and waiting until you collect all the facts. When bad news strikes, you have to fill the void or others will fill it for you. This is even more important when a company is oriented around a single individual. Customers and investors need to know that you are engaged.

So how do you say something when you don’t know anything? This is where a simple, non-committal statement acknowledging the issue and that you’re working to resolve the situation can save you a world of grief. It puts you in the driver’s seat, and forces people to react to the narrative that you set, rather than forcing you to react to theirs.

The apology

Lesson learned: Authenticity matters.

When Facebook finally did emerge with a statement, it covered a lot of ground, but neglected to apologize to users. After multiple days of deafening silence, that absence was even more noticeable.

While that may not seem like a big deal, a sincere apology is standard operating procedure in a crisis situation. Skipping it does nothing to reassure your customers, and often draws attention away from the actual event and focuses it on your response instead.

When Facebook did finally try and apologize, nothing quite went right. First, Zuckerberg issued an off-hand apology on CNN that fell a little flat. Then, the following weekend, the company took out a full-page ad in multiple newspapers around the U.S. and Great Britain with a more comprehensive mea culpa. While this one finally hit the right sentiment, its delivery detracted from the message. For a company that is synonymous with social media, an old-school PR tactic like a newspaper ad just doesn’t ring true.

You should always communicate with your audiences in a way that is authentic to your company and brand. When trust is on the line in a crisis situation this is even more critical – plus, it shouldn’t take two tries to get it right.

Taking action

Lesson learned: Just get moving already.

Beginning with their initial response, Facebook began rolling out a series of actions to resolve the problems highlighted by their snowballing scandals. They included both steps the company had already taken and new steps being taken now to further address the issue.

Whether or not any will be effective in the long-term remains to be seen, but the effort was enough to start quickly building a track record showing that Team Facebook was taking the issue seriously. As an added bonus, it also allowed Zuckerberg to go into his congressional hearings armed with quick answers to Members’ demands for action. Nothing deflates angry talking points faster than a laundry list of things you’ve already done.

This strategy of pushing out actionable change worked because the company started moving on day one. They didn’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. While you may not have a permanent solution to the problem right from the start, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t quickly start taking steps in the right direction. Showing that you’re taking the problem seriously goes a long way towards reassuring your customers (and investors) that you understand their concerns.

Creating sympathy

Lesson learned: Personalize your company (and sometimes yourself).

Everyone loves to rail against big companies. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to present Facebook as a big tech company exploiting its users for profit. During the five days of silence that followed the initial Cambridge Analytica revelations, this was exactly the narrative that started taking hold, with each subsequent headline just giving it new life.

To counter the narrative, Facebook launched a plan to humanize the company. Mark Zuckerberg accepted full responsibility and apologized for his personal failings, and COO Sheryl Sandberg repeatedly expressed remorse. There was an effort to speak less about Facebook as a company, and more about the regret the individual leaders feel for their role in the problem – and the actions their willing to take to fix it.

When a crisis hits, your main objective is to come out on the other side with your customer base (and investors) intact. While it’s easy for someone to lash out at a faceless company, reminding them that they do business with real people can go a long way towards calming the waters.

While your company may not look anything like Facebook and your business model may be entirely different, there is a standard playbook for responding to a crisis that involves customer trust – and it’s especially important to follow it when that crisis involves customer data and personal information. Take a page out of Facebook’s playbook and incorporate these steps into your own crisis planning today. Spending the time on it now will pay off when the tables are turned.

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