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Facebook - a lesson in crisis management

April 5, 2019 by Jenny Payne

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One year on from Cambridge Analytica, Facebook’s crisis management response provides some valuable learnings for any company facing a crisis with the potential to significantly impact reputation

 

When the extent of Facebook’s role in Cambridge Analytica’s data scraping practices came to light in March last year, it shocked the world and triggered the most significant crisis in the social media giant’s history. Given this was not a data breach but an example “of Facebook’s systems working as designed”, Facebook was presented with a significant reputational challenge that cut to right to the heart of its business model. Over the last year, further issues, most recently, the fallout following the live-streaming of the New Zealand terrorist attack, have further increased scrutiny of the organisation and its response to these incidents. 

There are a number of lessons organisations could learn from Facebook’s handling of the Cambridge Analytica incident.

 

Quick initial crisis response  

After the story broke, it took Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg five days to respond. This prolonged silence allowed media and politicians to fill the void and for #DeleteFacebook to gain traction on social media. This communication void was even more pronounced given Facebook first became aware of the issue in December 2015. This gave them ample time to consider a response or proactively address the situation to take control of the narrative. They did neither.

A slow or absent response from a company will not be tolerated by its stakeholders, including the media. It demonstrates an organisation failing to take control of the crisis and its reputation. The reasons for Facebook’s slow response may have been myriad but they neglected the impact this would have on stakeholder perceptions of them.

 

Do what you say you will do

Over a year on, Facebook hasn’t progressed any of the promises it made when it finally did break its silence. For example, it has still not implemented the “clear history” tool it announced last May. By over-promising and under-delivering, trust has been further eroded, which is an issue Facebook itself has recognised.  

A lack of trust can have long-lasting and significant reputational implications. When deciding on actions, leadership teams need to ensure they can be executed in a timely fashion.

In fact, research has shown that companies who commit to and deliver credible actions in response to a crisis can actually turn the crisis into a value-creating event in the long term.

 

Culture is King

A toxic culture within an organisation has shown on many occasions that it can sow the seeds for future crises. It appears Facebook may have fallen foul of this. Former employees describe a culture “where it was hard to challenge the prestigious growth team” and Facebook has also taken steps to suppress an email chain revealing employees’ concerns about Cambridge Analytica’s practices.

Where whistleblowing or challenging accepted norms is seen as negative, companies can leave themselves vulnerable to a crisis. Recognising this and giving employees the confidence to raise issues can help reduce this risk.  

 

Remembering the importance of timely communication, considering how to create a crisis-resistant culture and spending time on planning should the worst happen are all valuable steps in ensuring an organisation is crisis ready. This is even more important in today’s 24/7, social media driven news cycle that Facebook was instrumental in creating.

 

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Jenny Payne

Consultant

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