Over a three-week period this spring, two iconic American companies found themselves embroiled in significant public relations crises. These are the kind of crises that quickly grow legs, all while providing teachable moments for the rest of us.
News broke on Friday, March 16, that Cambridge Analytica improperly accessed data on 50 million Facebook users through an app offering personality quizzes called “This is your digital life.” Facebook admitted they had known of the situation since 2015, but only confirmed a miniscule 270,000 people had downloaded the app.
The following Monday, Facebook stock took a nosedive and lost an overwhelming $37 million in market value.
Tensions rose on Tuesday with news reports that the Federal Trade Commission had launched an investigation into the potential breach of a consent decree. Lawmakers were calling for CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify before Congress.
Five days after the story broke, Zuckerberg finally made his first public statement.
On April 4, Facebook revealed that the data of as many as 87 million people could have been accessed by Cambridge Analytica, far more than the initial two estimates.
Missteps: Transparency was obviously lacking. Facebook should have come clean with users in 2015 when they learned of the data breach. And they should have outlined a plan to prevent future occurrences.
Fudging the numbers or accuracy of just how many people were affected was also an issue. It speaks to credibility. How does a company go from 270,000 to 50 million and then “as many as” 87 million victims?
Timeliness and accountability were also factors. As CEO, Zuckerberg should have responded and taken responsibility within 24 hours when the news first broke in March, not five days later. That amount of time allows speculation to drag on and grow legs, not to mention foment a lack of control over your message.
What they did right: Once Zuckerberg finally jumped on the bandwagon, Facebook ceased being in the daily news cycle — a challenging place where no company wants to be after a crisis. He took responsibility for the data breach and repeatedly apologized. He was respectful and performed well when testifying before Congress, plus he did not lose his cool.
On Thursday, April 12, two black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, were arrested for trespassing at a Philadelphia Starbucks.
When they initially entered the store, Nelson asked to use the bathroom. The manager told him it was only for paying customers. He initially brushed it off and found a table.
Like many of us who use Starbucks as a “satellite” work office (full disclosure, I use The Marketplace), Nelson and Robinson were there on business. The young entrepreneurs were scheduled to meet Andrew Yaffe, a white local businessman whom they had previously met several times before at the same Starbucks.
While they waited, the Starbucks manager came over and asked if they planned to order anything. The 23-year-old men declined and explained they were early and just waiting for a business meeting.
The manager immediately phoned the police who arrived shortly afterwards. The men were arrested, but no charges were filed.
Much of the incident was recorded on a customer’s cell phone. The video went viral overnight and helped garner national attention.
Missteps: There was a lack of timeliness and accountability. On Saturday, two days after the arrest, Starbucks issued a tone-deaf one-size-fits-all apology that was soundly panned. It wasn’t until the third day after the incident that CEO Kevin Johnson issued an apology.
At this point, #BoycottStarbucks had been trending over the entire weekend and protests were being held outside the Starbucks where the incident occurred.
What they did right: Johnson personally apologized and said the arrest “should not have happened.” He noted the brand’s culture does not condone profiling and condemns racial discrimination.
On the Monday after the rocky weekend, Johnson was set to meet with Nelson and Robinson to discuss what had happened and to extend a face-to-face apology.
And Starbucks reclaimed the narrative. Johnson ordered 8,000 stores closed on May 29 for mandatory training to tackle unconscious bias.
Both companies are still navigating these crises. It will be interesting to see how each evolves in the court of public opinion moving forward.
Maureen Buscher-Dang is a Bakersfield public relations and marketing consultant. She can be contacted through her website www.buschermarketing.com.