Sergey Nivens - Fotolia
No one can be in any doubt that the current furore around Facebook allowing 50 million profiles to be mined for data and used by Cambridge Analytica, alongside the ongoing controversy dogging the social media platform’s use by Russian trolls to influence the US presidential election, is having a damaging effect on the company’s brand. As a result of the revelations, the company’s stock fell nearly 7% in a single day, wiping almost $40bn off its value.
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While all this was going on, one man was notable for his absence. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. There wasn’t a peep out of him. A number of observers noted that this wasn’t the first time Zuckerberg had been absent when the company came under the spotlight, pointing out that he sent an attorney to face senators investigating Russian interference in the presidential election last year. He also failed to attend an internal Facebook briefing and question and answer session about the latest revelations.
When this was pointed out to the company, Facebook released a statement claiming that “Mark, Sheryl [Sandberg] and their teams are working around the clock to get all the facts and take the appropriate action going forward, because they understand the seriousness of this issue.” So, the argument appeared to be that Zuckerberg was too busy trying to get all the facts and fix things to be able to spend time publicly explaining what happened or to provide reassurance to anxious users.
Ordinarily, that might sound like a reasonable strategy to adopt but the difficulty for Facebook is that the company’s identity is so heavily interwoven with one man. If Zuckerberg is silent then, to all intents and purposes, so is Facebook. Sure, the company can wheel out other people to provide comments and answer questions, but the problem is people won’t be convinced that what they’re hearing is the definitive company response until they hear it from the lips of Zuckerberg himself.
This may be what prompted Zuckerberg to break his silence, on 21st March, on his Facebook page, (naturally) when he stated: “I started Facebook and at the end of the day, I’m responsible for what happens on our platform. I’m serious about doing what it takes to protect our community.” Will that be enough to reassure most people? Possibly.
The situation at Facebook is similar to what happened at Apple in the old days with Steve Jobs who, for good or ill, had become synonymous with the company he worked for (yes, worked for). People expected him to make the big announcements, to speak for the company when the occasion demanded it and not to leave it to a spokesperson or surrogate to deal with the flak. His successor, Tim Cook, can do all that too but the weight of expectation on him is much less because the company has undergone a process of de-personalising itself. So while Cook may have the same job title as Jobs, he has a very different role.
This is an issue that afflicts many organisations where the founder is perceived to be the brain and heartbeat of the company, irrespective of all the changes and growth that may have happened in the intervening years. While there is much to be said for people being able to view the company’s culture, ethos and ‘personality' through the embodiment of the CEO, it can also have very negative consequences when things go wrong. If people think the CEO is being evasive or trying to avoid scrutiny what does that say to them about the business that he or she is supposed to embody? For companies that are so closely linked to the personalities of their founders and leaders, there is a real danger they might end up suffering from their very own personality disorder.