Facebook’s Communications Meltdown: How the Company Lost Control of Its Messaging

Mark Zuckerberg Facebook
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“You’re asking a really important question.” “It’s such a good question.” “Those are fair questions, and I think those are real questions.”

When Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg talks to journalists these days, she frequently praises their questions — and then proceeds not to answer them, instead talking about something else. Anyone who has ever undergone media training knows this as a redirection, a changing of the subject in order to evade those “really important” questions.

Sandberg has obviously undergone plenty of media training, as any executive in her position would have. But she’s also spent the past 10-plus years at Facebook, a company that has tried to control its messaging like few others — and that has been completely caught off-guard ever since the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal broke last month, incapable of dealing with a situation where the company is not in control.

Ask any tech reporter, and they’ll tell you that each tech company has its own style of PR and corporate communication. Apple, for instance, tends to only make a few select senior executives available for interviews to have a single voice speaking for the company. Google, on the other hand, frequently makes product managers and vice presidents available to reporters. They’re allowed to speak on the subject of their expertise, but generally won’t comment at all on other corporate matters.

Those decisions are as much a reflection of each company’s corporate culture as of their businesses. Apple makes most of its money with a handful of products, and believes it has found the best salespeople for the job. Google, and its corporate umbrella Alphabet, are on the other hand a lot more diversified, and publicly test all kinds of products and initiatives, from VR headsets to thermostats and from autonomous cars to cloud computing.

Facebook is in many ways more like Google, with a lot of groups working on separate products that often seem to compete with each other. Instagram, Whatsapp and Messenger are just the most prominent example of this. Nonetheless, the company has long tried to use the Apple messaging method, with a firm grip on its narrative.

That’s why you’ll often see Facebook sending not one but two executives to fireside chats at industry conferences. Regularly pairing up a man with a woman, these duos seem to suggest a gender balance, but also outnumber the moderator, and tend to recite well-rehearsed softball answers.

That’s why Mark Zuckerberg reportedly has a team of employees taking care of his public Facebook profile, working in the background to keep the illusion that the founder of the biggest social network of the world really is just like the rest of us.

And that’s why Sandberg always has an anecdote about a mom-and-pop store using Facebook to increase sales at the ready, a habit that she picked up for the company’s quarterly earnings calls but that she couldn’t help but fall back to during last week’s interview with Bloomberg’s Emily Chang.

But there’s a problem with narratives: If you repeat them too often, you might start to believe them yourself.

That’s exactly what seems to have happened at Facebook, which increasingly became tone-deaf to criticism over the past few years. Privacy advocates have long rallied against some of the company’s policies. What’s more, Facebook knew that it screwed up on key data sharing permissions, allowing Cambridge Analytica to do what it did, as early as 2014.

Instead of working on a real response, which would have resulted in rethinking everything from third-party app data to retention of customer information, the company practiced the art of the apology — and didn’t even realize how it began to alienate its users.

The mere fact that people started to speculate whether Mark Zuckerberg was going to run for president should have set alarm bells off within the company. Someone should have said: A tech executive doesn’t really need to do public listening tours across the country, or employ a personal photographer to humanize his image.

Instead, Facebook soldiered on, trying to remain in control of the narrative — an approach that very publicly hit the wall over the past two weeks. First, company executives remained silent for days after news broke that Cambridge Analytica may have accessed the data of as many as 50 million Facebook users. Then, Facebook resorted to a couple of high-profile interviews, a public apology tour of sorts, and commitments to do better.

This approach clearly didn’t work, as an ever-increasing number of privacy lapses and corporate screw-ups surfaced. So last week, Facebook went into overdrive, issuing new announcements on a daily basis, and making Zuckerberg and Sandberg available for an almost absurd number of interviews, where they repeated, at times verbatim, the same responses over and over again.

It was a pray-and-spray approach to crisis control, during which Facebook execs casually slipped in the detail that the total number of users affected by the Cambridge Analytica data leak may be closer to 87 million.

Sure, Facebook has announced some real changes over the past few days as well, including more transparency for political ads, a new retention policy for private messages and better disclosures about third-party apps. But the mere fact that the company now has to announce these changes on a daily basis shows how long it thought it could solve all of its problems with PR, rather than product design.

This week, Zuckerberg is scheduled to appear before Congress, first testifying in front of a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Senate Commerce Committees Tuesday, and then heading to the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday.

On Sunday, the New York Times reported that Zuckerberg has been practicing for both hearings with mock debates, relying on seasoned political consultants to prepare him for what’s to come. One can only hope they told him to stop relying on redirections. Because chances are, lawmakers want to hear real answers, not just someone praising their questions.