Facing a crisis? Maybe you should say ‘sorry’

Published 30 May 2018

What can we learn from Mark Zuckerberg’s leadership during the Cambridge Analytica scandal? A timeless lesson on apologising well.

Earlier this year in March, news broke that as many as 87 million Facebook users had their data hijacked by British consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica. The data was collected for Cambridge Analytica by researcher, Aleksandr Kohan, who promised to use the data for academic purposes. This saga is compounded by Facebook still being under fire for the spreading of fake news and sharing Russian propaganda. There has been a financial impact: Facebook’s valuation has dipped almost US$50 billion. While the non-financial impacts have seen less reporting, there has been backlash and a hit on trust with the resurgence of #QuitFacebook.

Did Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, respond well?

When a company crisis hits, leadership matters. Many times, the end result is the CEO steps down. Just last month, Kobe Steel’s CEO, Hiroya Kawaski resigned after it was revealed that quality data about steel products was faked. Kobe Steel is the third largest steel producer in Japan, and they supply metal products to almost 700 companies including Boeing and Toyota. In June of 2017, Travis Kalanick stepped down as CEO of UBER, and one of the reasons was because of the toxic company culture. In October of 2016, Wells Fargo’s CEO John G. Stumpf stepped down after it was found out that millions of fake accounts were created for customers without their consent.

Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg was called to testify and explain before the United States Congress. During the session, he took responsibility for the data breach. In written remarks given to the Commerce Committee for the House of Representatives, Zuckerberg said, “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry.” He also wrote that because he started and runs Facebook, he is ultimately responsible.

Zuckerberg’s explanation and apology felt genuine to those in the room.

An article on Channel News Asia explained, “Senator Bill Nelson told reporters that Zuckerberg appears to be taking the matter seriously.” On April 9, 2018, Facebook has even agreed to supply proprietary data for a study on its role in elections and democracy. Though there is no update on the study yet, it was announced on May 2, 2018 that Cambridge Analytica is shutting down its operations.

Because of this data breach and backlash on fake news, Facebook is changing how much control users have over their data, as well as how it is shared. Now, users are frequently reminded of which third-party apps have access to their information, asked if they wish to reduce the amount of data given to an app, and are required to give approval to third-party developers before these developers could gain access to their history or private data.

How leaders apologise matters

Rather than revealing a weakness, research shows that leaders who apologise can salvage relationships with their customers. Dr. Maurice Schweitzer, Professor of Operations and Information Management at the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, has researched apologies and found that how leaders apologise is telling. Schweitzer found that effective apologies are done speedily, are sincere, take the perspective of the customer, and show penance.

In an article for Knowledge@Wharton, Schweitzer explains “that it [an apology] should be perceived as sincere and that it should be substantial. In other words, it should be accompanied by penance”. He continues, “In the business world, the way in which apologies are made has a lot to do with how they are perceived. Customers know that full-page ads taken out by a company as a form of apology are expensive, and therefore they are seen as both sincere and substantial.”

In the midst of a crisis, it is easy for a leader to forget who they are serving. A classic example that Schweitzer uses is the former CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, who was criticised for saying “I want my life back” in the middle of the oil-spill crisis in Louisiana back in 2010. This shows a lack of sincerity, self-awareness, and penance. Rather than think of those who were affected, Hayward publicly announced that he was concerned with how this had impacted his life.

The public wants to feel that the person apologising means it. Though it is not a business example, the next example shows how a person acts post-apology is judged. Schweitzer explains golfer Tiger Woods’ misstep. In a press conference, Woods had said, “As Elin [his wife at the time] pointed out to me, my real apology to her will not come in the form of words, it will come from my behaviour over time.” After Woods apologised for having an affair, he was later photographed on his yacht. This negated his apology – because he was not ‘acting’ sorry.

Lastly, who apologises matters. Schweitzer notes that it should be a senior leader, which helps the public feel that the apology is genuine.

The senior leader must also demonstrate a clear and credible commitment to change.

Let’s take a look at Zuckerberg’s actions post-Cambridge Analytica and compare them to Schweitzer’s list. Zuckerberg apologised five days after the scandal broke, which feels slow. However, when he did apologise, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook had already made changes to the amount of data third-party developers could access, with more changes in the pipeline. Given that he was open to answering Congress’ questions, this showed sincerity and penance. Lastly, he apologised and took responsibility in his capacity as CEO and founder.

The power of an apology is timeless, and applicable in the future. Though it is sometimes difficult to apologise, a leader must remember the stakes involved in a crisis. Saying ‘sorry’ is not a weakness. When done well, it becomes a leader’s strength.

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