5 Crisis communications lessons from Facebook’s data failure

27 March 2018
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Since the recent revelations that Cambridge Analytica (a British political consulting firm) obtained data from 50 million Facebook users back in 2014, Facebook has been under attack in the media, the halls of power and on financial trading floors, and there are some key crisis management lessons we can learn from their response.

1. Recognise that a situation is a crisis and requires a response

I think it was clear to most people that Facebook had a crisis on its hands as soon as Christopher Wylie blew the proverbial whistle on Cambridge Analytica. But it appears that this was not immediately clear to Facebook and, stepping into their shoes, we can understand why not. Firstly, this was not new information to them – old news. Secondly, they had taken steps back in 2015 to address the problem – they had responded. And thirdly, the whistle wasn’t being blown on them, it was being blown on Cambridge Analytica, so it wasn’t really Facebook’s problem.

2. See things through your stakeholder’s eyes

Facebook, and indeed anyone who paid much attention, has always known that using Facebook involved sharing personal data. As the saying goes, if the product is free, you’re probably the product, and in this case, the currency was personal data. But this is not how most Facebook users saw it. Yes, they’d clicked the consent button many times, but they hadn’t really thought about it. Now the coverage was making it brutally obvious, and they didn’t have to take responsibility for willingly giving away their information – now they could blame Facebook. Facebook’s eventual response appears to have finally recognised this and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook CEO) said: “We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you.” But it took them a long time to see this perspective.

3. The most recognisable name will attract the most attention

Cambridge Analytica was the villain of the story, but their name did not have wide recognition. It really should have been Cambridge Analytica dealing with the crisis, but Facebook had the brand recognition and therefore made a much more exciting target – it made the story personal. This is an important lesson for any large shipping company or high-profile charterer to remember – don’t work with people if you can’t trust them to manage the media, because, in the end, you will suffer for their failings.

4. No matter how big you are, the story is always bigger

Big as this story is, it gained wider attention because of its connection to an even bigger story – the election of Donald Trump. Many people, especially on the left of the political spectrum, still can’t quite believe that Trump could have been elected in a fair election and this story appeared to provide some explanation for the “unexplainable” by suggesting that Trump wasn’t elected fairly, Cambridge Analytica and Facebook helped him dupe people. To people struggling with the election result this helped the world to make sense again.

5. Don’t let your crisis response (or lack of) become the story

A week after the story first broke, the coverage was no longer focused on Cambridge Analytica, or on the important issue of data security, it was focused on Mark Zuckerberg and the fact that it took five days for him to respond. When seen through Zuckerberg’s eyes (as above) it’s not so shocking, but to the hungry media and to crisis comms commentators like myself it was shocking. In the English language press more than 3,000 articles focused on the detail that it took Zuckerberg five days to respond. Commentators remarked that it appeared that Facebook had thrown the crisis communications playbook out the window. Every organisation thinks that their crisis is somehow special or unique, but journalists rarely see it that way. To most of them, there is a way that things should be done, and it is annoying when they’re not done that way. The so-called crisis comms playbook isn’t perfect, and I’m all for a little creativity in a communications strategy, but there is a basic way that things are done, and this is what journalists expect – so, no matter what else you do, start with the playbook and don’t annoy the journalists.

Shipping companies operate on a very different scale than Facebook, but I have often seen maritime companies make all the above mistakes and the results have been almost the same – depressed share price, government intervention, customer retreat, etc.

Crisis comms isn’t difficult when looked at from the outside, but from the inside of a crisis, the experience can be very different.


Dustin Eno
COO & Crisis Response Manager

T: +44 (0)20 3326 8467
E: dustin.eno@navigateresponse.com

Twitter: @dustineno

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