Mark Zuckerberg Prepares to Walk the Plank

You may be a billionaire. You may have one of the most recognizable names on the planet. You may have a stable of advisors. Congress will not be impressed.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faces an immense set of challenges when he ventures to Capitol Hill. He is due to testify today before a joint session of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees and tomorrow in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Let’s review:

  1. He has never before testified on Capitol Hill. This is akin to asking a rookie to start the seventh game of the World Series. The prospects for victory, while not zero, are significantly diminished.
  2. He is unaccustomed to dealing with freewheeling Q&A. For example, he rarely indulges in media interviews and, when he does, likes a controlled situation. During a conference call with reporters on Wednesday of last week, Zuckerberg was reportedly more at ease than in the past. Still, dealing with the press on the phone represents a more controlled situation than testifying before press-hungry politicians.
  3. His company is embroiled in a crisis that affects one billion daily users worldwide. Do you think that many people watching your performance might induce a bit of trepidation?
  4. The prodigy is not the most scintillating public speaker. He has a halting, unsure public persona. We can’t all be born silver-tongued orators. Nonetheless, CEOs have a responsibility to communicate effectively.
  5. His arrogance reportedly leads him to think he’s the smartest guy in the room. I’d wager that he will be one of the least competent in that hearing room on the subject of politics and public affairs.

It will be interesting to watch how Zuckerberg handles the pressure. This is a tightrope walk for any first-time witness, especially being subjected to contentious hearings on two consecutive days.

 

Video of Ed Barks’ interview on the CBS Evening News

The stakes are high not only for Zuckerberg’s personal reputation, but for the success of his company. Its stock price has dropped significantly in recent weeks, and a poor performance on the Hill could send it tumbling even further.

Ask Me Anything

Ostensibly, tomorrow’s Congressional hearing will review the Cambridge Anaytica scandal during the 2016 U.S. elections, in which that company scooped the personal data of at least 87 million Facebook users. He’d best be prepared, however, to also face questioning from committee members antsy about other issues, including:

  • Russian meddling in U.S. elections, and Facebook’s allowance of fake accounts and fake political advertising
  • Privacy protections for Facebook users, and attendant potential investigations from the Federal Trade Commission and several state attorneys general as well as European regulators
  • Perceived political bias on Facebook’s part
  • Whether the federal government should begin to regulate networks like Facebook, and what such a framework should look like

One the bigger questions: What will Zuckerberg’s overarching message be? Will he come across as sorry? Defiant? Rattled? He has been sending mixed signals since the crisis arose, initially taking the habitual Facebook approach of hauling up the drawbridge and readying the kettles of bubbling oil. However, on last week’s conference call, Zuckerberg reportedly displayed a more open mea culpa style (while still proclaiming that he is the best person to run Facebook). Then on Thursday, the company trotted out Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg for a charm offensive. Bottom line: Tune in to see which Zuckerberg appears on Capitol Hill.

Never Aim for the Capillaries

In his oral statement and during Q&A, he must get right to the point. A tech-laden statement will breeze right over the heads of most members of Congress and of the public that will be watching. And make no mistake, this is a public show as much as a Congressional hearing. His audience extends far beyond the four walls of the hearing room to Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and the living rooms of many Americans (ask yourself whether you have been tempted to delete your Facebook account in the wake of these ongoing issues).

Witnesses have limited time, and are always subject to interruption from members of Congress. My assumption is that Zuckerberg does not like to be interrupted, so some committee members may intentionally try to do so in attempts to rattle him. Reporters do it all the time. Lawmakers can play the game, too.

Q&A is where he’ll hit the jackpot or lose his shirt. Can members bait him, draw out his arrogant side, and succeed at flustering him? His rehearsal sessions must include what I refer to as the Third Degree; herd your smartest and most skeptical people into the room and pepper the witness with the toughest questions imaginable. Nothing is out of bounds. Better to anticipate and frame answers to such queries in the security of your preparation efforts than to be blindsided on Capitol Hill. One indicator to watch for tomorrow: Will he have everyday examples to support his point of view, or will he devolve into tech talk?

Prepare for Battle

Zuckerberg would be wise to take preparation seriously and shed the smartest guy persona. You can rest assured that he is not attending one of those relatively useless come-one, come-all general courses offered by some public affairs agencies or universities. He is not about to reveal his inner secrets or foibles in front of a roomful of strangers (nor should you, for that matter, when your time comes to testify).

He’d better listen when his public affairs experts tell him which members of Congress are for him and which are against him, for this offers some indication of where to anticipate the hardball questions (and some softballs perhaps). The CEO has somewhat of an advantage here since, in recent years, Facebook and other IT behemoths have ramped up extensive D.C. public affairs capabilities.

It will be interesting to see who wins the battle behind the scenes—the lawyers who typically want to reveal as little as possible or the communicators interested in broadcasting a Facebook-friendly message. This can be a real point of tension and, if left unchecked, can befuddle the poor witness left in the middle to try to sort things out for themselves.

The CEO can’t wing it if he hopes to exit the hearing with his pride (and fortune) intact. Research shows us that practice is the single most useful step toward improvement. You can listen to experts all you want, but the path to improvement runs straight down Practice Boulevard. Judging from his few media appearances, the Facebook leader has yet to internalize many of the most basic communications strategies. If that trend holds on the Hill, he is in for a rough ride.

Staring Down Reputational Risk

Members of Congress will tear you apart if you come across as smug. That has financial and reputational consequences for Facebook. I’ll leave it to business analysts with expertise in that area to judge what the fates may hold, both for Facebook and for Zuckerberg’s career. If the face of Facebook has any doubts about possible consequences, all he needs to do is consult with Richard Smith, former CEO and chairman at Equifax, or John Stumpf, Wells Fargo’s ex-CEO.

Zuckerberg can expect at least one benefit from today’s testimony: It will be good practice for his appearance tomorrow on the House side.

 

2 comments

  1. Many thanks for your kind words, Alice. With two days of hearings, there should be plenty of fodder for a follow up.

  2. Ed – this is one of the best pieces I’ve read about the Facebook debacle and its leader’s ability to, quite frankly, lead. Hope you do a follow up after the testimony.

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