Attack, Deny or Accept? Facebook Pondering Best Path in New Crisis

Facebook’s recent blunders have me thinking about the importance of corporate ‘posture’ in a crisis. When a company faces an issue with the potential to harm its reputation and bottom line, what is the best theme for communication to stakeholders?

Like many social media platforms, Facebook is no stranger to reputation crises. How Facebook and other companies have managed them offers lessons in how to (and not to) address stakeholder concerns and shore up reputation when the proverbial excrement has collided with the rotating blades.

Facebook has dealt with numerous reputation crises. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has apologized. In the case of Russian meddling in the 2016 US election, eventually he took responsibility. Recently, though, Facebook has assumed more defensive postures.

What is unclear is whether these events truly changed the company’s behavior. Many argue Facebook has not walked the talk when it comes to fixing problems and making sure they don’t reoccur. This is fundamental to a successful crisis response. You can apologize repeatedly, but if you don’t make substantive culture changes, then subsequent damage becomes self-inflicted.

Tech companies are not the only ones that get it wrong. Remember the infamous video of United Airlines’ staff dragging an elderly passenger off an airplane to make room for an employee?

United’s first response was to deflect (blame the passenger) and defend (cite policies and support employee actions). Once United realized it had to apologize, its messages were seen as insincere at best. This crisis will continue to haunt the company for awhile.

Then there was John Schnatter, former chairman and CEO of Papa John’s Pizza, whose deflection actually caused a crisis. When company shares dropped after he blamed shrinking pizza sales on the NFL and players ‘taking a knee,’ Schnatter dug a deeper hole. He used a racial slur during a media training session. A string of bad decisions hurt performance for months. It was not until Schnatter was removed that the company could begin rebuilding its reputation.

I don’t buy the argument that expressing regret equals admitting guilt. The court of public opinion can have as much impact as a court of law. Societal norms change and companies that fail to adapt are at risk.

Ignoring, deflecting and taking an aggressive, defensive posture rarely calm the storm. When the crisis stems from bad policy or suspect behavior, sincere contrition and action-backed commitment to change are powerful tools to rebuild trust with employees, customers and other key stakeholders.

- Deb Hileman

Deb Hileman, SCMP, is president and CEO, Institute for Crisis Management