Facebook CEO Faces Congress. What Your Organization Can Learn.

Mark Zuckerberg traded his grey t-shirt for a well-tailored blue suit and marched on Washington D.C. this week. While he testified before both Houses of Congress, he made $3 billion. In the words of Charlie Sheen — “winning.” Facebook shares are still down 16% from the all-time high before the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but the 4.5% bump in stock price signals that Wall Street liked what they heard (and didn’t hear) from the 33-year-old titan of one of Silicon Valley’s tech behemoths.

Rocky Start

Facebook’s immediate response to the crisis in confidence was, as frequently the case in the immediate response to a crisis, a little bit shaky. A few days after the privacy scandal reached a fever pitch in mid-March, Zuckerberg was interviewed on CNN and by the New York Times and COO, Sheryl Sandberg took the company’s message of contrition to other outlets. Facebook’s message was one of apology and taking steps to address privacy issues, but the delivery by Zuckerberg, who rarely speaks to the media, and Sandberg, who is a poised and effective media spokesperson, was not pitch perfect. Some even called for Zuckerberg to step down saying he was not equipped to lead during this crisis.

When the message and the delivery don’t match

Zuckerberg’s messages in the CNN interview were strong. He expressed regret and a recognition of Facebook’s responsibility.

“So this was a major breach of trust and I’m really sorry that this happened. You know we have a basic responsibility to protect people’s data and if we can’t do that then we don’t deserve to have the opportunity to serve people.”

He talked about their responsibility to ensure that election meddling via their platform doesn’t happen.

“You can bet that we are really committed to doing everything that we need to to make sure that the integrity of those elections on Facebook is secured.”

On the need for regulation

“I actually am not sure we shouldn’t be regulated. I think in general technology is an increasingly important trend in the world and I actually think the question is more, what is the right regulation rather than “Yes or no, should it be regulated?”

But if you watch the interview, you might not be convinced that he completely means what he is saying. He was not comfortable and did not appear as contrite as the words indicated.

CNN Video on Zuckerberg

Congress is calling; who answers the call?

In this same interview, Zuckerberg is asked if he would be willing to testify before Congress and he agrees that if called someone from Facebook would testify.

I would love to know how the decision was reached that Zuckerberg would be the person to testify. It is well known that he does not enjoy the spotlight. He rarely does media interviews or speaks in public. COO Sandberg, relishes the spotlight. She is a poised, confident, competent advocate for the company. In normal times that hierarchy works.

But these were not normal times. If Sheryl Sandberg had been dispatched to Capitol Hill, Mark Zuckerberg would have been skewered in his absence. The old phrase, “the buck stops here,” rings true in times of crisis. The person in charge has to show up and answer questions.

But the person in charge has to be prepared.

Charm school or preparation

In the days before the testimony publications from Vanity Fair to The New York Times wrote stories about Zuckerberg’s preparation characterizing it as charm school.

Let me be clear. The most gifted and experienced communicator and knowledgeable business leader would be foolish and perhaps derelict in his/her duties not to prepare (using outside counsel) prior to appearing before Congress. If you are a reluctant communicator, you especially need coaching and preparation.

According to published reports, Zuckerberg was prepped by a team of lawyers and outside consultants, including a former aide to President George W. Bush, on the types of questions he would be asked, and not only on how to respond but how to pause and respond to interruptions. According to anonymous sources, Facebook set up mock hearings with communications team members and outside consultants roleplaying as members of Congress. I suspect these “hearings” were recorded and replayed for critiquing. Just as it should be.

How did it go?

I have not watched every hour of testimony, but I’ve watched quite a bit, as did Wall Street.

Zuckerberg did well. He was appropriately apologetic and accountable. He was thoughtful. He was polite. He was patient; he was really patient. I’m not sure any of these behaviors come naturally to him. He was knowledgeable and accommodating (to a point), but he did not cave to pressure. He deferred to his team when he didn’t know (or, more likely, didn’t want to provide) specific details. He did not agree to many specific solutions to address the problems, but agreed that he would like to have “my team work with you on that.”

I don’t watch a lot of Congressional testimony, but when I do I am amazed at some of the people we send to represent us in Washington. Don’t get me wrong; some of our brightest minds are there, and then…. as The Daily Show host Trevor Noah said of the hearing, “… he had to spend four hours explaining Facebook to senior citizens.”

Media Training at Interact Studio

Susie Adams is the Director of Media Training at Interact Studio and teaches interactive classes on how to engage the media in an effective, authentic way. Her next workshop is scheduled for Tuesday, June 12, from 8:00 am to 12:00 pm at Interact Studio. Register here, or connect with Susie for more information.

Congressional hearings can make or break scenarios. I’m reminded of the disasters of the Enron hearings and the Major League Baseball steroid hearings. This was not that.

Mark Zuckerberg may be a college dropout (Harvard, in case you didn’t watch The Social Network), but he is an excellent student. Other leaders (and the teams that support them) would be wise to take a page from the Facebook preparation when they face crises of trust and accountability.

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Susie Adams

Susie Adams has 30 years in communications. Accomplished in public relations, media training and crisis communications, she is known for her intuitive wisdom around even the most difficult messaging challenge. Read more about Susie at Interact or seek her on Twitter: @cltdogmom