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This week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg heads to Washington to testify before Congress in the wake of revelations that data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica harvested private information on millions of Facebook users in support of Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign. With every new detail that emerges, Facebook’s reputation and stock continue to take a hit (and as my colleague recently wrote, a #DeleteFacebook campaign is having wide-ranging effects).

The facts alone indeed make this a huge crisis. But from a public relations perspective, several dynamics — including Facebook’s own missteps — have made a tough situation even worse. Here are the top three reasons why Facebook’s data privacy case is such a PR nightmare:

  1. The fact that Facebook stayed silent for so long. This is by far Facebook’s biggest self-inflicted wound. The company only went public about the situation when it became clear two newspapers were about to break the story. And when the story did break, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg were nowhere to be seen. As Kara Alaimo aptly put it in a Bloomberg summary of the crisis response missteps, “the worst decision an organization can make in such a situation is to stay silent.” She’s right!
  2. Mixed messages and a sclerotic pace of disclosure once information did start to flow. Facebook first tried to lay out a legal case that the data leak did not amount to a “breach” — a linguistic backflip of the first order. And it took until last week for the company to quantify the damage in conceding that as many as 87 million users may have been affected. The Cambridge Analytica mess, in fact, was apparently the last straw for Facebook’s own security chief, who resigned as the news broke — and after months of advocating internally for more disclosures about Russian election interference on the platform.
  3. A public “primed” to perceive tech companies in a negative light. The Cambridge Analytica story would have been bad news at any point in Facebook’s corporate life. But the fact that it came after months of news about that Russian interference — and after years of reputational hits on the tech industry — means that the public was already viewing tech companies with a gimlet eye. Communications theorists call this priming, where preconceptions color interpretation of new information, and it’s happening in a big way right now. In fact, the tech industry as a whole is now struggling to change that narrative, with rapid response and fact checking initiatives to counter rumors in real-time.

One of the biggest ironies throughout is that such a sub-par communications response would come from the progenitor of social media itself: By its very nature, social media is about fast communication and — in the context of crisis communications — it’s a proven channel for rumor control and quick dissemination of official information (research I did with NOAA on social media in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is just one of many studies demonstrating this). One would think the primary architects of social networks would leverage their own creation a bit better when it comes to disclosure and sharing critical information in a timely way.

We’ll see how any of these lessons might affect Zuckerberg’s performance on Capitol Hill this week, and Facebook’s reputation management efforts in the months to come.

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