Release of Facebook Email Trove Provides Lessons on Second-Hand Crisis Response

facebook email trove

As part of an investigation into Facebook's use of its customers' data, a British parliamentary committee has just released internal Facebook emails and other company documents from 2012 through 2015.

Released on Dec. 5, the documents were “originally sealed as evidence in a lawsuit brought against Facebook by Six4Three, an app developer,” according to the New York Times, and primarily focus on the company’s use of user data in conjunction with other partners. This comes as Facebook has already been under intense scrutiny for the Cambridge Analytica scandal following the 2016 presidential election and a bombshell New York Times report published Nov. 14 that revealed how the platform responded to the crisis.

Facebook published a statement responding to the report on its blog yesterday, immediately refuting its legitimacy and defending its actions.

“As we’ve said many times,” the statement reads, “Six4Three…cherrypicked these documents from years ago as part of a lawsuit to force Facebook to share information on friends of the app’s users. The set of documents, by design, tells only one side of the story and omits important context.”

It also specifically calls out portions of the report that it claims are false, and declares “we’ve never sold people’s data.”

One of the larger revelations from the report is the discovery that “Facebook have clearly entered into white listing agreements with certain companies, which means that after the platform changes in 2014/15 they maintained full access to friends data,” according to a summary of the files by British MP and chair of the DCMS Committee Damian Collins.

Among the companies that allegedly made up these whitelists are Netflix, AirBnB and Lyft. Facebook responds to this allegation on its blog, explaining that even after preventing apps from accessing friends’ information, it extended this ability to some companies. “In some situations, when necessary, we allowed developers to access a list of users’ friends. This was not friends’ private information but a list of your friends,” Facebook said.

As of this writing, Netflix, AirBnB and Lyft have said nothing about the report. This calls into question how a company should react when it is inadvertently brought into the crisis of another organization.

Traditional communications wisdom says that when a company faces a crisis, it is usually best to get out in front of the situation, making a statement as soon as the issue emerges—as Facebook has done. But, any communicator worth his or her salt also knows that sometimes commenting on a situation can add fuel to a fire that would have petered out on its own, creating a larger issue for the organization that wasn’t originally there.

In this situation, Facebook is under scrutiny. Although one could question why Netflix, AirBnB and Lyft needed access to a users’ friend information in the first place, the onus falls on Facebook for allowing it to happen. Perhaps these companies have made the right decision in not responding to this report, allowing Facebook to take the heat and hoping that their names become a footnote and not a key focus of the investigation.

So, if and when your company gets called out in another brand’s crisis, you may want to hold off on deploying your crisis plan. Monitor the news cycle and social media sentiment, and only reply if absolutely necessary.