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Two days of questioning, nearly 600 questions and almost 10 hours of public testimony.
For a CEO who does not make a lot of media appearances, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg was certainly in the spotlight last week.
The billionaire appeared in front of US senators looking for answers about the social network’s data breach which placed it into full crisis media management mode.
Facebook’s initial response to that crisis was extremely badly handled - as we outlined in this blog.
So how did Mr Zuckerberg get on during his marathon grilling at the hands of politicians?
Well, we have identified six lessons from his testimony which other crisis media management spokespeople can learn from.
There are many examples of spokespeople being ill-prepared for the scrutiny that comes when their organisation is in the news for the wrong reasons.
Facebook may have made many mistakes with the way it handled this crisis when it first broke, but no chances were taken with this hearing on Capitol Hill.
Mr Zuckerberg was extremely well-prepared, briefed and rehearsed for this hearing.
We can tell this both from his relatively assured performance - despite the countless memes which have appeared with him looking startled - but also from the detailed notes he left open on his desk during a recess.
A photographer captured 2 pages of Mark Zuckerberg’s notes for his appearance at a Senate hearing on Tuesday https://t.co/5a1pHOJpeh— The New York Times (@nytimes) April 12, 2018
The obvious bonus lesson here is for spokespeople to ensure their briefing notes can’t be captured by photographers.
Despite all that preparation, there seemed to be a lot of questions Mr Zuckerberg did not appear to know the answers to.
‘My team will get back to you on that’, or variations of that phrase, was a response which was regularly relied upon.
"My team will get back to you on that."--said #Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, many, many, many times.— Christopher Carbone (@christocarbone) April 11, 2018
Let me summarize the most frequent answers from Mark #Zuckerberg today:— Lisa Hegemann 🌈 (@frauhegemann) April 10, 2018
- Thank you for that question, that is a very important issue for us.
- I am not sure. Let me ask my team and I will get back to you.
- I am looking forward to working with you on the details in the future.
For those of you playing the home drinking game, the trigger phrase is when Zuckerberg says: "I will have my team get back to you on that..."— Amee Vanderpool (@girlsreallyrule) April 10, 2018
In fact, it was used around 20 times, and its use has certainly left his ‘team’ with a lot of homework to be cracking on with.
But make no mistake, this response was not the result of lack of preparation.
It was in my view, a sign of being over-prepared and of having had a lot of input from legal teams. It was an attempt to avoid saying something which could come back to haunt him.
If a crisis media management spokesperson doesn’t know an answer, then they are absolutely right not to get drawn in to speculation.
But repeatedly avoiding answering questions and deflecting in this fashion does not create the impression of transparency organisations should strive for in these situations. Evasiveness is not a good look in a crisis.
Contrition and remorse
When the misuse of data crisis first broke, Facebook seemed to find ‘sorry’ a particularly hard word to say.
When Mr Zuckerberg eventually broke his silence on the issue, with a Facebook post, there was no hint of an apology.
Here, however, he seemed to find it much easier to take responsibility and express remorse, not just about the data issue, but also for fake news, foreign interference in elections and hate speech.
He said: “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.”
The overall feeling is that Mr Zuckerberg didn’t face the really tough questions he may have anticipated during this hearing.
The Axios website carried the headline ‘Mark Zuckerberg outwits congress’ while The Guardian suggested he benefited from a lack of understanding about technology among those asking questions, saying ‘at times Zuckerberg resembled the polite teenager who visits his grandparents, only to spend the afternoon showing them how to turn on the wifi’.
At one point Senator Orrin Hatch asked how Facebook sustains a business model while running a free service. Mr Zuckerberg responded ‘Senator, we run ads’.
His notes, which we mentioned earlier, outlined suggested responses in case he was asked whether he would resign. That question was never asked.
America: Finally, Mark Zuckerberg will have to answer some tough questions.— Alec Tefertiller (@alecteefer) April 11, 2018
Congress: Mr. Zuckerberg, can you send me a floppy disk with the Facebook on it so I can have my grandson show me how it works?
All the #Zuckerberg hearing seems to demonstrate is that an overwhelmingly large proportion of the US Senate knows little to nothing about the functioning of social media and online tech. Zuck is doing remarkably well at handling badly framed, misinformed and misleading questions— Ollie Calvert (@ocalvert) April 10, 2018
Of course asking tough, pertinent, questions is the stock-in-trade of reporters and they are always likely to be critical of those they don’t think do it as well.
Facing almost 600 questions across two days is certainly a test of endurance.
But spokespeople in other crisis media management situations can expect tougher questions when faced by journalists.
One of the interesting things to emerge during the questioning was that the Facebook CEO’s own data was exposed in the Cambridge Analytica leak.
This admission came in the form of a simple ‘yes’ in response to a question and it showed that Zuckerberg is one of us.
It was a shame though that he didn’t feel the need to elaborate on that answer and, for example, provide an insight into how that made him feel.
Because for all the solid responses he gave during his two day hearing and his determination to stay ‘on-message’ it was clear that the human touch, emotion and personality was missing.
And they are important factors for any organisation in turning around a crisis and regaining trust.
‘Man of the people’ Mark Zuckerberg says his personal data was harvested too, including information about his favourite human meals and his most enjoyable human pastimes.
— Have I Got News For You (@haveigotnews) April 12, 2018
Greetings, fellow "human" "beings." I, Mark Zuckerberg, another being that is human, will be testifying in a court full of other humans to defend my creation, Facebook. I have been programmed to give out nothing but facts regarding the human interaction website. pic.twitter.com/NpFIQsikM0— diddy (@UnknownKongYT) April 11, 2018
On our media training courses we often stress the importance choosing the right clothes when appearing on television.
Smartness matters, but it is important that spokespeople are dressed in something that makes them feel comfortable and reflects who they are.
Clearly Mr Zuckerberg could not turn up at this hearing in his usual grey hoodie and blue jeans, but equally he did not look particularly at ease in his formal navy suit and tie.
In fact his choice of clothing became something of a distraction with several publications running articles about his ‘sorry suit’.
Look who got all dressed up! https://t.co/mvKqLsvAaM— GQ Magazine (@GQMagazine) April 10, 2018
Another distraction, which certainly took the internet by storm, was Mr Zuckerberg’s use of a thick cushion throughout the hearing.
Whether or not it was used to make him appear taller, as many posts imply, or was to support a medical condition, it not only generated online conversations but also triggered newspaper articles.
There had been a lot of criticism before the hearing of the media focusing on Mr Zuckerberg’s relative youth, with references to the ‘boy billionaire’ and his ‘growing up moment’. The use of what appeared to be some form of booster seat only served to reinforce those descriptions.
Stop infantilizing Mark Zuckerberg! Also, here’s his booster seat. (Photographs by Evy Mages.) pic.twitter.com/MeKwDZwIEF— Andrew Beaujon (@abeaujon) April 10, 2018
Mark Zuckerberg using a booster seat to testify before Congress is the only meme you need today. pic.twitter.com/FZl93tFWOL— Meme Bot (@theMemesBot) April 11, 2018
Overall Mr Zuckerberg did pretty well, albeit with the help of some dubious lines of questioning.
The meme generators and headline writers may poke fun at his apparent awkwardness and booster seat, but he impressed investors with Facebook stock rising as he spoke.
Time will tell whether his performance in this political theatre will win over disgruntled Facebook users.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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