Written by Priyanki Brahma 

“It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here,” said Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, while testifying in front of Congress on Capitol Hill last month.

That statement reads well, but is that apology enough to dig Facebook out of its biggest crisis ever and regain trust of its customer base? You don’t have to be a crisis expert or a public relations practitioner to understand that Facebook will have to do much more than just apologize. But sure, that’s a start.

Ever since the Cambridge Analytica scandal came to light, Mark Zuckerberg has been apologizing. Here’s a look at some of his public mea culpas from a public relations perspective and lessons we can learn to implement or avoid in our apologies during a crisis.

Stakes are high and you have to act fast

The worst decision an organization can make in times of a growing crisis is to stay silent. A day after the news broke, Facebook posted a blog post on its site calling the ‘data breach’ reports false. For the next three days it said and did nothing, while stocks plummeted, media and public backlash ensued, and a #DeleteFacebook movement began to trend. Finally, on Day 5, Zuckerberg surfaced and apologized.

Trust and reputation is a difficult thing to win and manage; it takes years of good work to build that and it can be lost by one wrong move. In times of a crisis, disclosure is important – sure there is sensitive information that cannot be shared with public – but acting with haste and keeping stakeholders apprised of the situation and the steps that are being taken to solve the problem is a necessity. This also helps to mitigate any reputational hazards and maintain credibility.

Everyone’s looking at you – tread carefully

After five days of saying nothing and seeing its market valuation plummet by billions, Facebook published full-page ads in several British and American newspapers, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. The ad was a message from Zuckerberg taking ‘full responsibility’ and with a promise to ‘do better.’ Though the words were aimed at regaining trust, the medium chosen to convey the message was wrong. Many saw it as a “too little too late” tactic from an otherwise outspoken CEO.

In times like these, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture and focus all efforts on mitigating the crisis, but companies must make an effort to understand what a reasonable audience would expect a responsible company to do and do the right thing eventually.

Words – pay attention to those

“It was my mistake, and I’m sorry” – a poignant testimony with words of assurance from Zuckerberg succeeded in a stock price rebound for Facebook. It rose 4.5 percent while senators grilled him over user data privacy issues and Facebook’s business model. Even amid scandal, Facebook’s quarterly earnings rose to record levels – it generated almost $4 billion more revenue in the first quarter of 2018 than the first quarter of 2017. But as the founder and CEO of the company, Zuckerberg has immense responsibility and the majority of observers applauded him for owning up to the mistakes instead of trying to change the narrative. People on Wall Street found his calm, assuring voice very authentic and have decided to give him and the company a second chance.

Make empathy your friend

Facebook has been criticized for not using Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook, to address the recent scandal. Sheryl, who is otherwise very vocal and has an empathetic tone, has been silent on the whole matter which has led to the media and public questioning whether Facebook is serious about changing its policies to better safeguard its users’ information.

An apology is most effective when it’s delivered with the right tone, one that shows remorse and empathy, and comes off as something so genuine that people want to believe it. Zuckerberg did that to some extent, but often failed to connect with people on a human level. Many felt Sheryl shouldn’t have alienated herself from the issue, rather should have been there assuring the public that she will be a major force in implementing the changes to do right by the people who have put their enormous trust in the company.

Words matter, but what comes after matters most

Sure, how and what you apologize for matters. The steps you promise to make it better matters more. But what matters the most is that you follow through with your promise and actually make an effort to not repeat the same mistakes. It was interesting to hear from Zuckerberg about the many changes he intends to bring forth for better data privacy at the F8 Developer conference last week (including plugging new products like, Facebook Dating).

A crisis can be an opportunity in disguise – how you handle it will determine how people will perceive you for years to come. Many companies have been applauded for their crisis management strategies and have been able to keep their reputation and brand image blemish-free; while others have not been so lucky. It can be difficult staying calm and focused through all the harsh media and public criticism, but ensuring that there is a continuous dialogue with your audience while communicating clearly all that is being done to solve the problem with the promise of doing better, will guarantee an effective reputational management in times of a crisis.

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