After more than 20 years of crisis communication and related activity, like media training for executives and spokespeople, including working with legal counsel to craft statements to be included in tough news stories, it was easy to cringe when watching Facebook tiptoe through a Sunday and Monday like few others.
First, it was the source behind a Wall Street Journal series of reports on internal studies showing damage caused by both Facebook’s flagship and Instagram platforms making herself public and appearing on Sunday’s 60 Minutes ahead of Congressional testimony. While it’s easy to second guess, it’s fair to say that the company’s response was not exactly textbook.
Facebook’s media responses surely must flow through legions of PR staffers, executives and lawyers. Yet, what appeared, on-screen, to a massive (by 2021 standards) TV audience included a fundamental mistake – owning negative language that the company’s critics typically use: “To suggest we encourage bad content and do nothing is just not true.” Ouch.
That was part of a statement provided to the news outlet that is exceptionally long. It it so long that it was never going to be used in its entirety on TV and is hard for anyone to read otherwise. How long? See for yourself here, as CBS posted it online and good luck getting through it.
Then, on Monday, the company’s platforms were “down” for almost an entire business day, U.S. Eastern time anyway. In short – they were out of business. What did the company have to say about it? Not much, just short statements from a company spokesman on rival site Twitter. Picture an airline’s entire fleet grounded for a day or a mobile phone carrier without service, globally, for a day. Could they get away with not taking the opportunity to communicate to customers? Facebook, the company, didn’t need Facebook, the platform, to lay out facts and reassure its audiences. Traditional media would have gladly done that for them. But they didn’t take advantage of that opportunity instead, making it seem like something really bad must happened, it was handled in a completely dysfunctional manner, or both.
Facebook’s PR team, even if it is providing sound counsel, remains hamstrung by its CEO/founder, Mark Zuckerberg, who appears, at best, robotic and, at worse, deceptive when speaking in public (which he rarely does these days other than giving Congressional testimony. These are times in which a CEO’s job description includes communicating clearly and concisely on behalf of the company, especially if action is being taken to address issues taken public. Instead, audiences are getting spokespeople and rambling text.
Will it matter? It often feels it’s like the company the world loves to hate, but we still check it every 5 minutes anyway, scrolling during anything resembling down time. Is Facebook “too big to fail?” Maybe. But one thing we know before is that no company has ever gotten into trouble for listening to and communicating with its customers.