Can Zuckerberg Rebuild Trust? It’s A Long Shot, But Here’s Where To Start

With Congressional testimony looming, Facebook’s embattled CEO is mostly sticking to the same old talking points. It’ll take a lot more to turn things around.

Can Zuckerberg Rebuild Trust? It’s A Long Shot, But Here’s Where To Start
[Photo: Flickr user Alessio Jacona]

This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.


“We’re an idealistic and optimistic company.” That’s how Mark Zuckerberg began yesterday’s explanation of Facebook’s latest crisis, stemming from the just-updated revelation that the data of some 87 million users found its way into the hands of Cambridge Analytica, a firm hired to help Trump get elected president. But Zuckerberg’s audience of journalists was clearly awaiting something else: Realism. In what has by now become a pattern, the gap between Facebook’s expectations and those of its 2.2 billion active monthly users was again on full display.

The reporters on the call first asked Zuckerberg about data breaches, broken laws, and broken trust. Then a reporter ventured a blunter question: “Given the pattern of mistakes, do you still feel you’re the best person to run Facebook going forward?” Zuckerberg quickly answered, “Yes!” Odds are he’ll have to answer that same question again when he testifies before Congress next week.

It wasn’t that Zuckerberg offered nothing. “We need to take a broader view of our responsibilities,” he conceded, apologizing for the fact that the company (and he personally) had failed to do more earlier. Finally, he listed a handful of fixes Facebook had made in the preceding days, then made assurances that more would follow. Still, it remains an open question whether or not Zuckerberg can convince Congress, the press, the market, and most of all Facebook’s users that he’s capable of regaining enough trust and generating enough foresight to lead Facebook out of the wilderness. But if he can, here’s what it might take.

Related: This Startup Build Its Brand On Facebook. Is It Stuck There Forever?

Remove Head From Cockpit

Pilots use the expression, “Get your head out of the cockpit!” as a reminder of how easy it is to slip into the mode of flying by instruments alone and ignoring what’s happening in the turbulent world they’re maneuvering through. From the outside, anyhow, Zuckerberg appears mainly to navigate by his own gauges and inner thoughts.

The current Cambridge Analytica fiasco is the latest stumble in a pattern stretching back at least as far as 2012, with near-annual subsequent revelations of Facebook failing to properly protect its users’ data–and continuing disingenuousness about what it does with their data. How can he miss this? And how is it possible that even if Zuckerberg and other top leaders at Facebook don’t see these patterns, they evidently fail to understand that others do?


Zuckerberg’s first step should be to recognize the possibility that the source of users’ and the general public’s ire is a trend-line he might not be positioned to see as clearly–which doesn’t make it any less real. Zuckerberg needs to embrace the likelihood that his blind spots have contributed to the mess his company’s in, and that trusting in what others are seeing can help get it out.

Related: This Is The Real Reason Leaders Fail In A Crisis

Call Facebook’s Business Model What It Is

Zuckerberg was asked yesterday if he’d ever considered foregoing some of what’s good for business in order to put users’ interests first. He answered instead that “all the hard decisions we have to make are actually trade-offs between people”–that is, in balancing one group of users’ interests against another’s, not against advertisers’ demands.

Maybe he didn’t understand the question. Or maybe it was another indication of one of Facebook’s biggest problems: Forthrightness. Zuckerberg has said that a key to reducing misuse of the platform’s tools and data is to improve “transparency” around who is maliciously using Facebook and how. It’s time for Facebook to apply that principle to itself.

The company’s business is based on two deeply intertwined things that nonetheless come into conflict more than a little: the trust of its users, and the value to advertisers of those users’ data. Facebook wants that trust simply because without trusting users, there’s no user data to monetize. They know it. We know it. It’s time to say it. Zuckerberg’s main defense was that Facebook only uses data that people freely provide it–a weak argument that’s only partly true: Sure, you opted to tell Facebook your birthday, but the platform tracks all kinds of subtle, behavioral metrics in order to make predictions about you that probably even you can’t accurately make about yourself.

This model invariably means that what users feel comfortable with will clash with what advertisers find valuable. It’s a long road to building (or rebuilding) a platform that finds a better balance between those two interests. But while it’s surely Zuckerberg’s job to make it easier for users to regulate how much information Facebook gathers about them and what it does with that intel–as he acknowledged last night–it’s also Zuckerberg’s job to be truthful about the business changes that will require. He’ll be amazed at the amount of slack he’ll earn the next time Facbeook screws up.


Start Over

Facebook engages in relationships with at least a quarter of the world’s population. That’s who Zuckerberg should have been addressing yesterday, and it’s the constituency he’ll need to speak to most directly in Washington next week. He largely threw it under the bus last night, implying that Facebook has mostly upheld its side of the bargain simply by not selling users’ data to third parties. (Obviously, if everyone agreed that were the main sticking point, there’d be no crisis here.)

When it comes to users, Zuckerberg needs to start over. Once he and his team have assembled a new data strategy that actual users feel good about, Zuckerberg needs to go back and ask them to sign up for Facebook afresh, even if only symbolically. Symbolism is a powerful thing. It signals intent. When authentic, it reflects considered thought. It seals a promise. It offers a fighting chance of regaining trust.

Will Zuckerberg do these things? For my money, there’s ample reason to doubt it. Zuckerberg’s belated, measured, defensive approach in crisis after crisis isn’t working. Even a billionaire only gets so many chances before the ride is over.

Larry Robertson is the founder of Lighthouse Consulting and an innovation advisor who works, writes, and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership, and entrepreneurship. He is the author of two award-winning books, The Language of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity, and A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress.