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Principles of Public Relations
Helene Degross

Facebook Case Study

The current public relations nightmare that Facebook is experiencing, and the subject of

this case study, is the Cambridge Analytica scandal involving the harvesting of millions of user’s

data. The scandal was a source of intrigue for nearly every news outlet in the world for multiple

weeks, making it one of the biggest scandals Facebook has been involved in since its creation in

2004. A critique of the performance of Facebook’s public relations department in necessary,

but first an overview of the scandal and the key players involved is needed to properly

understand the steps taken to alleviate the crises.

The beginning of the scandal can be traced back to 2013 and the creation of an app by

Aleksandr Kogan. This app, called “ThisisyourDigitalLife”, was designed as a personality quiz on

Facebook. Over 300,000 Facebook users interacted with Kogan’s app, which allowed him to

access their profile data. Not only that, but it also allowed Kogan access to the data of said

user’s Facebook friends. In all, it is reported that Kogan gained access to millions of Facebook

user’s personal data through the app.

Two years pass by and everything is calm, until 2015 when the story breaks that the firm

Cambridge Analytica is helping Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign by utilizing the data harvested

by Kogan’s app back in 2013. Facebook claimed they’d banned Kogan’s app, and that the data

had been deleted. In 2018 the big story, and the main focus of this case study, broke. It is

revealed that the data harvested by Kogan’s app had indeed not been deleted, and was used by
Cambridge Analytica to help President Trump’s presidential campaign. The information came

from whistleblower Christopher Wylie, who was a former employee of the Cambridge Analytica

firm. Wylie claimed that the data of some 50 million users had been used to profile and target

voters, saying the information was used to create psychographic profiles of users in order to

feed them Trump propaganda.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, finally responded 5 days after the initial story broke

with a statement on his Facebook page, saying “We have a responsibility to protect your data,

and if we can't then we don't deserve to serve you. I've been working to understand exactly

what happened and how to make sure this doesn't happen again." In the following days

Zuckerberg would take out ads in multiple newspapers so he could issue a longer and more

detailed apology. On April 10th, about 3 weeks after the story broke, Zuckerberg testifies in

front of congress.

This story has a lot of variables and different players, and some of it is still playing out

today. This was undeniably a crisis for Facebook, so it garners a look into how well they handled

it. Crisis management, or the process by which a firm handles a sudden emergency situation,

begins before the crisis ever even happens. This is called issues management, which is when a

firm stays informed on issues as to prevent anything from spiraling out of control and into a full

blown crisis. Facebook did not do very well with this aspect of crisis management. They did not

anticipate emerging issues, even though the signs were there the whole time. More should

have been done when it was revealed that Kogan’s data was being used in Cruz’s presidential

campaign. Facebook should have done more to make sure that data used by Cambridge
Analytica was actually deleted. If this had been done, then the whole mess with Trump’s

campaign would have never happened in the first place.

Facebook was unable to stop the problem before it began, so they found themselves in

the midst of a crisis. This is where crisis communication comes into play. The story came out on

March 17, and it wasn’t until March 21st that CEO Mark Zuckerberg finally responded—almost

five days after the initial story. This made it look as if Facebook was withholding information,

which is a major violation of crisis management. This span of a few days allowed the media to

formulate their own stories and left the public confused and misinformed on the situation,

which only put Facebook in an even worse light. The quicker a firm can respond following an

emergency, the easier they can control public opinion.

While they were late to respond, they at least responded with one voice. In a crisis

situation it is essential to not keep all channels of communication open. By funneling all the

information into one voice it prevents miscommunication within the company and makes the

message they are trying to convey much easier. Facebook did have just one spokesperson, that

one person was the CEO, which is often times not a good choice for a spokesperson. The

circumstances are a little different in Facebook’s case though, as Mark Zuckerberg is such a

prominent figure that the public may have felt cheated if anyone but Zuckerberg had


Facebook did pretty good in keeping consumer relations positive, as Zuckerberg was

very apparent in his apologies that Facebook had made a mistake and was doing their best to

fix the problem. The company also took out advertorials in multiple major newspapers and
magazines in the U.S. and UK to further explain themselves to the media and the public, and to

keep positive media relations.

On April 10th, Mark Zuckerberg testified in front of Congress. This alone was a positive

move in Facebook’s handling of this crisis. The simple fact that Zuckerberg was able and willing

to go in front of a panel and be interrogated about the crises was a huge step in the right

direction for the company. This is a perfect example of output, outtake, and outcome. The

company got coverage from the testimony, and it was obvious the correct demographic

reacted as the outcome was that Facebook stocks rose 4.5 percent during the time Zuckerberg

was testifying. So, even though having your CEO testify in front of congress may not be a good

thing, this ended up being great publicity for the company. On the other hand, Zuckerberg did

refuse to go in front of Parliament when they first summoned him. Even though Zuckerberg

later accepted the invitation, it still made the CEO look like he was guilty of something.

All in all, the public relations department of Facebook did a pretty good job in

controlling this situation. Although there wasn’t much evidence of any research having been

done to prevent the problem from happening—the company still did a good job of recovering.

As far as is known, there was no lying, or spin, involved in the handling of the crisis. They may

have withheld some information at first, but never lied. The company’s ethics are still intact

after this crisis because they were so honest and open during their explanations of the incident.

This open honesty also helped proved that Zuckerberg was not a robber baron, as it seemed he

was genuinely sympathetic about the Facebook users who were impacted by the incident.

Facebook is projected to make a full recovery from this crisis, which is probably the

biggest indicator of the effectiveness of the public relations department. The whole thing has
been made into a bit of a joke by the younger audience, especially the congress testimony,

which helped take attention off of the real issue at hand. The company also just recently posted

record breaking first quarter earnings, which proves that the crisis didn’t impact the company

nearly as much as it could have. While some mistakes were made, the overall performance of

Facebook’s public relations department was good in that the company will be able to move on

from this scandal with relatively little damage done.