Crisis Leadership: A Tale of Two CEOs

Does anyone really want to talk about crisis communication? It’s sort of like life insurance. You want to know you have a plan in place but it’s not something you want to dwell upon.

And yet a quick scan of the headlines reveals that crisis communication — or lack thereof — dominates. Especially in the age of social media. And sometimes the brand impacted is a social media brand itself as we’ve seen over the past few weeks as Facebook has found itself at the center of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Despite shifts in technology and media, one thing that hasn’t changed in crisis communication is the role that leadership plays. To illustrate this, I want to tell a tale of two CEOs — Zuck and Hamdi.

Don’t Be Like Zuck

Initially, Facebook thought the Cambridge Analytica story would blow over. Let’s be honest. The social media giant is no stranger to controversy. The company has been called to appear before both the United States Congress and Parliament in the United Kingdom. Hacks to Facebook accounts reportedly happen at a rate as high as 600,000 times a day. CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s account was hacked twice in 2016 alone. And, yet we trust the company … Alas, this is a topic for another day.

Let’s focus on Zuckerberg and trust. Facebook execs clearly thought nothing much would come of this. That’s why they didn’t send Mark Zuckerberg or COO Sheryl Sandberg out to issue a response. Instead, their silence became the story. As business strategist and author Jay Baer notes in his book Hug Your Haters, “No response is a response.” You’re sending another message altogether.

After four days, Zuckerberg finally emerged with a statement and limited media availability (a shift from being unavailable altogether). Even when he spoke, Zuckerberg said little, spending most of his time pinning the blame on Cambridge Analytica instead of exploring Facebook’s role as a purveyor of third-party data with decidedly lax policies. Facebook says Cambridge Analytica violated their policies. Cambridge Analytica says they followed the rules. Silence. Spin.

In the meantime, the damage to the brand is already having an impact. Facebook’s stock price is plummeting amidst renewed calls for greater regulation and oversight. Mark should have been more like Hamdi.

Be Like Hamdi

In my new book Brand Now, I lay out why brands today need to be transparent in what they say and do. But there’s no easy “transparency switch” to throw. It has to come from the top. Transparency has been key to the growth of dominant Greek yogurt brand Chobani. The core belief at Chobani, as stated on their website, is a simple one: they want to provide better food to more people. That’s why Chobani is committed to all-natural, non-GMO ingredients.

However, a big challenge in striking a balance between food quality and quantity is food safety. In 2013, when a common mold species was found in their yogurt, founder, CEO, and Chairman Hamdi Ulukaya announced a broad voluntary recall. He also stopped all marketing promotion, and personally took over their social networks to reassure customers. Re-read that last point — the CEO personally took over their social media accounts.

I challenge you to find a better point of contrast to Zuckerberg’s disengagement than Ulukaya’s engagement. Make no mistake, the incidents are comparable. A food safety issue is a big deal for any food brand, much less one that hangs their hat on being all-natural. An attack on a core belief could have sunk a lesser brand. However, the brand’s transparent CEO-led response saved the day. This also provided an opportunity for the company to educate the public on the mold found, Mucor circinelloides, as opposed to letting the media run wild with the story.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal is an attack on what should be one of Facebook’s core belief’s as well — trust. Trust should be the cornerstone on which Facebook is built. We don’t just share our personal data. We share stories, photos, memories, milestones, and relationships. Our trust in Facebook should be second to none. (It’s not.) And that trust should be built through every product feature and interaction with the brand. (It’s not.) And, like Chobani, that should start from the top. (It doesn’t.)

Recently, I interviewed management legend Tom Peters on my podcast. Zuckerberg’s (lack of) leadership has been at the forefront of Peters’ most recent commentary. His advice? “(1) Acknowledge the enormity of the problem. (2) Admit you f-ed up Big Time. (3) Tell the truth. (4) Be VERY respectful. (5) Skip the T-shirt.”

While the fifth point makes me chuckle, 1–4 are the ballgame. Responding immediately with transparency and authenticity. That’s how great leaders build brands. On both good days and bad ones.