Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica crisis is continuing to generate steam as the story develops and more details of the furore arise. This has arguably been the biggest hit the social media giant has had in its 14-year existence, with advertisers like Mozilla and Sonos pulling spend and the rise of a #DeleteFacebook campaign online supported by the likes of Elon Musk and WhatsApp founder Brian Action.
When you look back at past crises that have failed in their initial responses to the public, from United Airlines violently removing a passenger to the BP oil spill, in each case, the first days or weeks of the crisis were characterised by fumbled or slow responses and falling back on legalisms. Unfortunately for Facebook, this is a trend that it followed; Zuckerberg took five days to publicly address the situation, unsurprisingly raising numerous questions regarding the silence of the company. To add to this, The Guardian reporters who broke the story said Facebook tried to block them from running it by threatening to sue them – never a wise move when the story you’re trying to block has such a big impact on the public.
One thing that Facebook should be doing in its current predicament is to look at how other international companies successfully reacted to crises when it happened to them. Possibly the best example of this was 35 years ago by Johnson & Johnson, after people began dying due to cyanide being maliciously injected into Tylenol pill capsules produced by the company. Straight away, the company put customer safety first. It quickly pulled 31 million bottles of Tylenol – $100 million worth – off the shelves and stopped all production and advertising of the product. It also got involved with the Chicago Police, FBI, and FDA in the search for the killer, and offered up a $100,000 reward.
In terms of putting the customer first, it looks like Facebook is doing this by changing its privacy settings and making it easier for people to control their data. However, in terms of working with the authorities, this is not something the company is doing, with Zuckerberg refusing to testify in front of UK MPs. By failing to do this, he has already come under intense criticism from the UK parliamentary committee and runs the risk of looking like he doesn’t care about the people that use Facebook. However, it should be remembered that the Johnson & Johnson crisis occurred in the days before social media, the Internet, and 24-hour news, allowing for more time to consider public communication.
A similar example of Facebook’s slow response to its crisis is that of Toyota in 2010 – the company recalled a total of 8.8 million vehicles for safety defects, including a problem where the car’s accelerator would jam, which caused multiple deaths. Toyota failed miserably in its initial crisis management, with company executives spending months emphatically denying that any sort of problem existed. However, following this, the company offered extended warranties and pumped up marketing, leveraging its long-term track record and reassuring consumers about safety. To add to this, its ads in the following months were more thoughtful and sincere, showing the company’s dedication to fixing the problem.
So far, Facebook has not had as bad a start to its crisis as Toyota did, but it needs to ensure that its next steps are meticulously planned and replicate Toyota’s later strategy. Facebook has already taken out full-page ads in nine newspapers in the U.S. and U.K., apologising for a “breach in trust.” This is a good first step, but like Toyota, it will need to invest a lot more in marketing and advertising to ensure that its sentiment and endeavours to change are seen to be long-term.
All crises will differ, which obviously makes it difficult to completely replicate the success of another company’s handling of a situation, especially in the case of Facebook which feels like a personal attack on its user base of over two billion. Nevertheless, there are still basic steps that should always be taken to ensure that company damage is kept to a minimal. For Facebook, in the next few weeks, the big dilemma will be to decide how transparent it wants to be with its users about how their data is shared and monetised. For its own sake, you’d hope it puts its users first and has full transparency on their data, whilst also communicating this through increased marketing and advertising. However, even with millions of people demanding change, it will be interesting to see if the business model of social media platforms, which is to monetise user data, will actually change.
Patrick Williams, Account Manager