The Flaw in Facebook’s Leadership Language

CEO Mark Zuckerberg says that instead of speaking out fast about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, he wanted to speak carefully. The two needn’t be mutually exclusive.

By all accounts, Facebook has whiffed at crisis management in the past few weeks.

Indeed, part of the problem is that it hardly bothered to take a swing. When word broke that the firm Cambridge Analytica may have improperly accessed Facebook data that was then used to help sway the 2016 election, CEO Mark Zuckerberg took the better part of a week to address it.

Zuckerberg turned on the microphone that is now always on with the expectation that executives use it.

Five days is a long time for most large businesses facing a scandal of that size, and for a technology company it’s practically an eternity. Pundits have interpreted Zuckerberg’s slow-roll of a response—media availability, then apologies in full-page newspaper ads, then some announced tweaks—as either overly protective and overly arrogant. (Or, maybe, reputation management in advance of a run for elected office.)

Regardless of the reasons, the time lag was bad enough to allow the #DeleteFacebook hashtag to grow while the company’s stock price shrunk. When Zuckerberg finally did speak, he said that the reasons for the delay had nothing to do with protectiveness or arrogance (or politics). “I really wanted to make sure we had a full and accurate understanding of everything that happened,” he told the New York Times. “I know that there was a lot of pressure to speak sooner, but my assessment was that it was more important that what we said was fully accurate.”

I’m going to take Zuckerberg at his word here, because I do think his leadership style is a) not actively malevolent or incompetent but that it b) suffers from a paralysis-by-analysis problem, one that afflicts a lot of well-intentioned leaders. In gentler times—2015—Zuckerberg bungled his discussion of expanding the “like” button to the love/sad/angry/etc options Facebook users now have. Zuckerberg rambled, talking about different feelings users had, and then giving the impression that it was introducing a single “dislike” button. By failing to keep the conversation simple, and wobbling back and forth about competing talking points, the key message got lost. More to the point, it left others free to decide what the key message was, even if it was inaccurate.

The details of the Cambridge Analytica scandal are complex—Zuckerberg will reportedly be visiting Congress soon to explain them. And he would likely have had to do so regardless of how Facebook managed the crisis. But he might be doing so with a little less #DeleteFacebook in the ether if he had spoken out before he had that “full and accurate understanding of everything that happened.” That doesn’t mean being callous with the facts, or misleading. It just means acknowledging the plain fact that the problem exists and that you’re addressing it.

I’m reminded of the experience of the American Counseling Association about two years ago, when it decided to move its annual meeting out of Tennessee in response to legislation that ran counter to ACA’s code of ethics. ACA spoke out against the law before it arrived at the governor’s desk, and there was no confusion about where the association stood on the matter. It still had members who wanted the meeting moved, and it still had to have a difficult conversation about that, an expensive action that would inevitably upset some members. But it had the freedom to move deliberately with its response, which—contrary to folklore about associations when it comes to boards and crisis management—was handled both carefully and speedily.

Facebook might feel that the scale and complexity of its problems are a little larger and difficult to resolve. But at its core, it was no different than any other organization in a crisis—it needed to clearly acknowledge that it had a problem, rather than have other people drip out details of the problem, upon which others can project their own complaints about an organization.

That dynamic has always been part of crisis management. But it’s accelerated, and Facebook has itself to thank for that. Zuckerberg “founded the platform that is perhaps most responsible — in addition to Twitter — for the expectation that leaders speak up immediately,” Jena McGregor recently wrote in the Washington Post.  “It was Zuckerberg who, even if unwittingly, turned on the microphone that is now always on with the expectation that executives use it. Zuckerberg’s platform has also contributed substantially to a society that expects immediate gratification.”

Zuckerberg will have to find his own way through Facebook’s problems, and fast. And thanks to him, association leaders will have to be in a little more of a hurry too.

(mactrunk/iStock Editorial/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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