It seems like you can't turn on the TV these days without some PR disaster raising its ugly head in the world of politics, entertainment or business. And in the case of the latest Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal -- it's a combination of all three.

As a branding and marketing strategist, I always watch these things unfold with a paper and pencil in hand. I'm constantly on the lookout for the best and the worst ways people handle these situations.

As for the Facebook debacle, I'm giving them a grade of D in dealing with a PR disaster of national proportions.

In large part because Zuckerberg is committing one of the main mistakes in handling a PR disaster -- he's not.

Even if he isn't certain yet of all the facts, his next steps, or even how Facebook has determined to proceed, there is still a necessity for him to be seen, heard and above all communicate that he gets the critical nature of the situation. 

If I were coaching Zuckerberg -- and clearly I'm not -- I would advise him, or any other CEO facing a PR disaster, to get ahead of the game by doing the following four things:

Express concern.

According to the dictionary, concern is a noun meaning, anxiety and worry, as well as a matter of interest or importance to someone. As a starting point, you need to at least show up and express in specific language your unease and make a verbal disclosure of the impact and importance of the circumstances on your customer. For example:

  • We are distressed by the current situation.  
  • We are deeply concerned by what has become revealed.
  • We are troubled by this latest development.


Many business leaders get hooked by this one, afraid that apologizing is tantamount to admitting fault. Not so. The type of apologizing I am referring to is equivalent to saying "I am sorry that this is happening." Other phrases that convey this sentiment include:

  • We regret that this has happened. 
  • We are sorry for the situation this has put people in.
  • We apologize for any distress this is causing.

Commit to finding the facts.

It can take time to sort out the tangled web of a sticky situation. However, what your customers and the general public want to know is are you committed to doing so?

Letting people know that you are proactively seeking the specifics of a situation in order to resolve it goes a long way toward quelling a PR disaster. 

  • We are investigating the details of the situation.
  • We are committed to uncovering the facts.
  • We are looking into the specifics.

 Present a next action.

Talk is cheap. Yes, you need to express concern, apologize and commit to finding out the facts.  But you also need to expressly say what your next actions are. For example:

  • These next few days, we will be X.
  • Our next step is to X.
  • Over the next week, we will be doing X.
  • Our plan is to X.

By the way If you think these PR debacles are just the purview of politicians and high-tech personalities, think again. Small businesses can suffer just as much from handling these things poorly.

I personally had an experience recently where I brought a significant issue up to a vendor, based on some poor-quality work they had been performing.

The CEO's response? To tell me why it wasn't that bad, how his staffing problems were the cause and how his business partner's vacation schedule was the issue, and on and on.

Showing up and expressing concern, apologizing, investigating and taking action? Not even close. 

The bottom line is that stuff happens.  Not a one of us can prevent mistakes, mishaps and the occasional poor judgment from occurring. What we can do is choose how we are going to deal with it when it happens.  And the first step as Mr. Zuckerberg's absence is proving,  is to show up.