Did Facebook ace its congressional test?
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s two-day testimony before both Senate and House officials offered a fascinating case study in crisis communications at the highest level. Time will tell whether Zuckerberg accomplished his long-term goals, but from a strict communications perspective it was a textbook performance.
Here are five key points that professional communicators can take away from his performance:
1. Practice, practice, practice—and role-play before interviews or testimony.
Ahead of his appearances before the House and Senate committees this week, Zuckerberg has been on the road fine-tuning his testimony and role-playing Q/A with his PR/legal/government team. Perhaps as a result, the oftentimes socially uncomfortable 33-year-old tech titan looked relatively relaxed before the potentially daunting congressional committees. He was obviously hoping for the best, but was well prepared for the worst during approximately 10-hours of being on a sizzling hot seat.
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2. Be polite, and apologize if appropriate.
When faced with tough questions, Zuckerberg resorted to respectful replies and apologies to questioners. Remember, being contentious during testimony or most media interviews yields poor results. Zuckerberg’s preparation conjures up a lesson from the physician’s Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm.
3. Connect with your audience
Zuckerberg made every attempt at personalizing and creating empathy during his testimony, a good tactic to blunt an attack. One example: Zuckerberg volunteered that he also lost personal and private data when 87-million Facebook users’ information was compromised through Cambridge Analytica.
4. Being in control of your environment.
Zuckerberg appeared surprisingly in control at times, even occasionally displaying a restrained smile and an uncharacteristic attempt at humor. Possibly, the market’s uptick for Facebook stock over the two-days of testimony also bolstered Zuckerberg’s confidence, while sitting on his cushioned chair may have given him an appearance of a bit more height and comfort. Crisis managers agree that sharing any positive and supportive information with a nervous client before testimony, making them feel good about themselves and their surroundings, are always good attitude adjustment ideas.
5. Never say “no comment.”
When Zuckerberg didn’t have an answer or didn’t want to answer a testy question he additionally fell back on either pat apologies for not doing a better job or a promise to get back to the committee with factual response. For instance, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) asked if Facebook will be using more default settings to protect private data that could be weaponized. Zuckerberg didn’t say yes or no, but promised to follow-up.
Of course, there are times when legal counsel advises a client testifying under oath to invoke the Fifth Amendment, but there was no need this time for Zuckerberg to go in that direction.
Scott Sobel is Senior Vice President, Crisis and Litigation Communications, at kglobal, a Washington, DC-based full-service communications firm and has worked with legal teams preparing clients for congressional testimony.