‘Meaningful Social Interactions’ From Facebook’s Leadership Remain Scarce as Cambridge Analytica Story Accelerates

It can be delicate, a disaster or at least ironic when a brand that bases its business on something is shown to be deficient in it.

For example, Equifax, which was built on security and securing peoples’ financial data, demonstrated over the summer to be irresponsible on data security issues.

Ditto Wells Fargo, an iconic brand that people have trusted with their finances since 1852. Its multiple scandals, now stretching from summer 2016, have shown that the trust the public put in Wells Fargo was misplaced.

Journalism, a business that by definition is based on trust and honesty, is not immune. The New York Times, arguably the country’s most-trusted news source, had its integrity besmirched in 2003 when reporter Jayson Blair was shown to have concocted a series of stories.

Brian Williams Takes Us for a Ride

More recently, honesty, the basis of another journalistic organization, NBC, was dented when star anchor Brian Williams was found to be less-than-trustworthy and honest.

We’d be remiss to fail to mention the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) and the USA Gymnastics (USAG). Arguably those organizations exist first to capture gold medals, although part of their missions must be to nurture and protect athletes, particularly when underage competitors are training away from home and parental oversight.

More than a few allegations have come to light that USAG and USOC forgot that part of their mission. Those making the charges, such as star gymnast Alexandra Raisman, claim officials knew or should have known of disgraced Dr. Larry Nassar’s years-long abuse of gymnasts and remained silent.

A report in the New York Times (yes, we see the irony) alleges USOC lawyers told USOC  chair Scott Blackmun and his board well before Nassar was brought to trial to “keep [their] heads low and…mouths shut” about allegations against the former gymnastics team physician.

While the entire USAG board resigned right after Nassar’s sentencing in early February, only Blackmun has departed so far from the USOC, and that was recently. In a terrible case of spinning, USOC said he was stepping down for health reasons. While Blackmun is battling prostate cancer, USOC communicators, or whoever directed them, delivered a less-than-truthful statement about Blackmun’s exit.

Tawk Among Yourselves

And now we have Facebook, a brand that exists to help people share experiences and create community. In short, Facebook is built on people talking about themselves, their families and their friends and sharing all this on its social media platform.

Saying Facebook is based on people sharing and talking is as simplistic as saying Equifax’s business is centered on the company guaranteeing the safety of your credit information. Still, you get the point. Sharing and talking are tenets of Facebook’s business.

So, in the hubbub over Cambridge Analytica, why haven’t Facebook’s leaders Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg shared or talked?

Ali Craig, a national brand and marketing consultant, notes Zuckerberg and Sandberg were AWOL during a March 20 Facebook meeting where employees gathered to discuss Cambridge and other issues facing the brand, such as its involvement with alleged Russian attempts to influence the U.S. 2016 presidential elections.

‘A Pretty Crazy Idea’

(You might recall Zuckerberg’s initial remarks when told Russian agents posted fake news on Facebook to meddle in the U.S. elections. “A pretty crazy idea,” was his response. That changed eventually. At least one commentator has seen the irony in Facebook’s initial handling of the Cambridge situation. Similar to Zuckerberg’s first public reaction to Russian involvement, Facebook scotched the Cambridge incident early.)

Facebook VP/deputy general counsel Paul Grewal led the Tuesday meeting, although that information is based on unnamed sources. Facebook has confirmed a meeting occurred, but released no other details. A former judge, Grewal posted a blog March 16 noting Facebook suspended Cambridge.

Around the Clock

In a statement following the meeting, Facebook said, “Mark, Sheryl and their teams are working around the clock to get all the facts and take the appropriate action moving forward, because they understand the seriousness of this issue. The entire company is outraged we were deceived. We are committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information.”

At any rate, consultant Craig says, “It’s one thing for a CEO to be silent to the media regarding a scandal, but it’s quite another to decline facing his…employees.”  This absence, she says, “speaks volumes about the turmoil that is ensuing internally at the highest levels of Facebook.”

To be fair, Facebook employees have an outlet. They have access to Wait What? PR, an internal group where they are encouraged to ask questions about how media is covering the company as well as the brand’s media relations policies.

We’ll Talk Tomorrow

Axios reports Zuckerberg will speak, perhaps tomorrow, in public. [See Update below.]  Zuckerberg is expected to face the troops Friday during a previously scheduled all-hands meeting. Sandberg may join him for that interaction.

Needless to say, PR pros are grumbling on social about the absence of Zuckerberg and Sandberg from the employee gathering and that a lawyer, not a communicator, seems to be taking the lead on Cambridge. Communicators also note Facebook, similar to other companies mentioned in this post, put the brand above everything and everyone, including those customers whose information Cambridge misused.

Reputation Reduced

Last week The Reputation Institute issued its Global RepTrak 100 reportnoting global reputation of companies declined for the first time since 2009. One way to regain reputation, the report says, is for companies to communicate more openly and honestly with the public. The face of the company, the report argues, must be the CEO. This makes Zuckerberg’s silence even more ironic.

Another irony: In January, Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s shift to “meaningful social interactions.” Perhaps in the next day or two he’ll partake in one himself.

[Update: Just after this blog posted March 21, 2018, Zuckerberg addressed Cambridge in a post on Facebook. He also said he’d be doing an interview with CNN “shortly.” Apparently he’ll be a guest on Anderson Cooper tonight.]

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