An Ugly Truth, a new book by New York Times journalists Siva Vaidhyanathan and Franklin Foer, paints a devastating picture of the way Facebook operates, based on interviews with hundreds of current and former employees.

The book features a list of apologies and promises to do better made by Facebook over the years. “Calm down. Breathe. We hear you,” said Mark Zuckerberg condescendingly in September 2006. “We never meant to upset you,” purred Sheryl Sandberg in 2014. Another year passes with another apology by the social media behemoth.

As I recommend to my clients during crisis situations, apologising, or at least sympathising, is an essential element of a good crisis communications strategy. I’m glad to say, though, that I’ve never had a client that has had to apologise quite so often and quite so publicly as Facebook.

So why is such an amazingly successful business, with its army of PR people and its notoriously controlling approach to interview requests always on the back foot, forever fire fighting against such negative media coverage?

The answer is actually quite simple – Facebook constantly reacts to events and its communications activity is entirely tactical rather than strategic. The company’s management of violent, extremist content and fake news is often described, pejoratively, as a “whack a mole” approach – something nasty comes to light and the company whacks it. Critics are forever asking why Facebook can’t take a more proactive, strategic approach instead of simply responding to the latest (usually justified) explosion of outrage.

I’d argue that this is true of its comms operation overall. The company might come up with initiatives such as its new advisory board or the appointment of Nick Clegg as head of its global affairs and communications team. Similarly, it has launched initiatives such as its anti-COVID-19 misinformation campaign. But it’s never established a clear narrative.

We’ve never heard Facebook itself tell the story of Facebook. I would argue that if we did then Zuckerberg and his team would have a frame on which to hang its various communications initiatives and its messages.

A convincing, widely shared narrative answers that essential question: “why?”

Whether it’s launching a new product, changing a product, unveiling a policy, making an acquisition or announcing job losses, if your target audiences understand your narrative then they’re much more likely to understand – and approve of – your motivations.

Answering the “why” question is an essential part of how our brains work. Human beings look for meaning – whether it exists or not. The problem is, therefore, that if you don’t develop a narrative yourself then other people including your target audience and your detractors, will do it for you. In Facebook’s case the narrative that underpins any initiative or apology runs along the lines of: “After years of arrogant disdain for their punters and politicians Facebook is reluctantly scrambling to put out a fire or launch a PR campaign to head off an issue that it has happily allowed to get out of control.”

The company had a go at a narrative in 2018 with a TV advert aired during the NBA Playoffs. Here viewers in the US were told: “We came here for the friends. But then something happened. We had to deal with spam, clickbait, fake news, and data misuse. That’s going to change. From now on, Facebook will do more to keep you safe and protect your privacy.”

But a really compelling, coherent narrative requires an organisation to admit mistakes and failures – and then to explain how it’s learnt from them. As many commentators pointed out at the time, “something happened” suggests that Facebook had nothing to do with all the nasties that suddenly emerged out of the sharing of news with friends and the posting of family photos and holiday selfies.

Now, I’m not being paid as much as Nick Clegg but here’s how Facebook’s narrative could go: “We are the original social media company. We started doing something that was completely unlike anything anyone had tried before. Thanks to our users, we’ve grown incredibly quickly and revolutionised the way in which people communicate with each other and the way in which advertising works.

“Because we were doing something completely new and our growth has been so fast, we’ve naturally made some mistakes and we apologise unreservedly. We’ve got it wrong on a number of issues from data and privacy to fake news and unacceptable content. We’re very sorry about this. But we’re learning from our mistakes all the time and, by listening to our users and to others, we’re determined to answer people’s concerns and manage things better. So, here’s what we’re going to do…”

As narratives go, it might not be Booker Prize material but it could certainly remove the need for the Facebook’s whack-a-mole apologies.

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