Mark Zuckerberg Offers a PR Lesson on Capitol Hill

PR professionals say it all the time. They repeat the phrase so often sometimes its meaning gets lost. I’ll admit, my eyes roll when this concept is the first takeaway of a submitted essay I’m editing or a presentation I’m hearing at a trade event. Yet this idea was the key to what made Facebook’s Tuesday afternoon so successful on Capitol Hill and Wall Street.

And, if you think about it, to a large extent this concept I’m referring to is what Facebook capitalizes on to provide revenue to pay for Mark Zuckerberg’s idealistic quest to “connect people” (and collect their data).

The tactic I’m referring to is knowing your audience.

mark-zuckerbergFacebook knew extremely well the audience it was going to address in the Senate hearing room Tuesday. When you have Facebook’s budget, you can pay some of the best in the business to advise you about the makeup of your audience. They can also come up with something communicators talk about all the time—a strategy.

Among those sitting directly behind Mark Zuckerberg yesterday were Myriah Jordan and Joel Kaplan, members of what The Atlantic once called Facebook’s "Lobbyist Dream Team." To call Kaplan and Jordan consummate D.C. insiders is as much of an understatement as saying Beyoncé is a decent singer.

The Team Leaders

A conservative Democrat who converted to the Republican party in the late 1990s, the tall, imposing Kaplan is a U.S. Marine (a tip: you never say someone is a former Marine unless you want to get punched). He's also a former White House deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, has an undergrad degree and a law degree from Harvard and is Facebook’s VP of global public policy. The only fault we can find with Kaplan from yesterday is both he and Zuckerberg wore white shirts and light blue ties. It looked like a uniform.

Facebook public policy director Jordan has a long connection to Kaplan through her work in the office of the chief of staff during the George W. Bush presidency.

The point for PR pros is Kaplan and Jordan, and countless others they hired, prepared Zuckerberg beautifully for the audience he was addressing. They also researched and had experience with how D.C. and hearings work.  As a result, what some thought might be an antagonistic session resulted in “no knockouts, no standing 10 counts, only a good deal of sparring,” says D.C.-based PR pro Andy Gilman, president/CEO, CommCore Consulting Group.

Zuckerberg never lost his cool, rarely veered off script and never answered a question “yes” or “no.” It always was “Yes, Senator” or “No, Senator.” One of the big potential pain points going in was Zuckerberg, 33, is half the age of most of the people he was addressing and could buy and sell them several times over. His deferential tone negated the issue fairly quickly.

How Deep is the Senate?

Moreover, Kaplan and Jordan knew this about their audience: Few lawmakers understand the intricacies of Facebook and so their questions likely were going to be shallow. In addition they understood such hearings contain far more grandstanding than trenchant policy debates. Professional staff members—the people sitting behind the senators—are the ink-stained wretches who’ll be tasked with creating regulatory language, if it's to come.

Kaplan and Jordan also took the audience’s temperature well before Zuckerberg was asked to come to Capitol Hill. That’s what good lobbyists and policy people do on a regular basis. As a result they knew how slim the chances are of a European-type GDPR regime being approved in a divided congress and one looking ahead to something really important: the 2018 elections.

Using the audience data Kaplan, Jordan and their consultants gathered, a strategy—another work-product PR pros like to provide—was conceived. Its elements included being deferential to the senators, who likely wouldn’t get too deeply into policy and regulatory details (that’s not done at hearings); apologize profusely for the Cambridge Analytica mess and the Russia meddling situation; promise to do better in terms of handling data and privacy; and get the heck back to California.

Business as Usual?

Maybe you're thinking Zuckerberg has no intention of fixing Facebook. That will kill his business model. Even if he wanted to fix it, with 2 billion users, it's too large to monitor adequately.Those are topics for another day. Yes, there was another audience involved yesterday: the public. Research shows Americans are concerned about Facebook's handling of their data. Concerned enough to stop using Facebook? Come on.

But back to PR. Perhaps you’re saying, “But my brand doesn’t have Facebook’s budget. How can I get insight on my audience the way Kaplan and Jordan did?” Fortunately, you have access to much of the same technology infrastructure that powers Facebook.

You can do the research as well if not better than the people who work under Kaplan and Jordan. Sure, you are unlikely to access the inside scoop from U.S. Senate and committee staffers whose names reside on the speed dials of Kaplan and Jordan. Still, if yesterday’s hearing provided any lessons for communicators it’s knowing your audience and basing your strategy on that knowledge can be a tremendous advantage.

Seth Arenstein is editor of PR News. Follow him: @skarenstein