managing questions managing news feature

Managing Questions, Managing News

Aggressive questioning rarely comes more dramatically than was experienced last week by social media titans TikTok’s Shou Zi Chew, Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel, Discord’s Jason Citron, X’s Linda Yaccarino – and above all, Mark Zuckerberg of Meta. Of course, this was not a media interview: on the face of it, it was a senate hearing entitled Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis.  In my view, it was simply an exercise in public humiliation, akin to putting wrongdoers in the stocks and throwing rotten tomatoes at them.

The extreme style of public cross-questioning seen in many of the video clips of the hearing seems to be a hybrid of aggressive journalistic questioning and the most high-octane Hollywood police interview tactics. One thing is for sure, the questioners had no interest in genuinely understanding what the leaders of these mega companies thought or planned to do about the ills they were accused of. This was all about opprobrium and the political capital it offered to the senators. Some of the ire, may perhaps genuinely reflect a sense of exasperation and despair that so little has been done to date to protect the vulnerable online, but is this really the way to conduct public debate or bring about change?

The questioning by Senator Josh Hawley was amongst the most uncomfortable that I saw.

The Guardian provides some useful context, just in case we haven’t come across Josh Hawley previously.

Senator Hawley, (…) famously encouraged the mob on 6 January 2020 (before later being filmed running away from them after they stormed the Capitol).

Zuckerberg has probably had a great deal of coaching but rarely, in the clips I saw, got to finish a sentence.

A PR guru’s advice to Zuckerberg and co, would be to try to avoid anything approaching this situation because there is no way to get any sort of hearing, let alone a fair hearing. Of course, in this case, the big tech leaders had little choice. While Zuckerberg and Chew saw the writing on the wall and volunteered to turn up, others were subpoenaed. They would have known they would face grandstanding and a grilling. In fact many of the questions would have been predictable. In context these questions can sound shocking but actually there is a stock list of  tough questions for people in charge when things go wrong.

  • ‘Will you apologise?’
  • ‘Whose fault is this?’
  • ‘Did you fire anyone, if so who?’
  • ‘How much are you making from this?’ and
  • ‘Will you pay compensation?’

All are very standard ‘tough’ questions that all broadcast journalists learn in their first year in the profession. ‘Shouldn’t you resign?’ usually also makes an appearance but didn’t on this occasion.

From a professional point of view, I noted that Zuckerberg, when asked to make an apology to the families, did use the word sorry and did sound caring but importantly he only he only apologised for ‘what you have been through’. He was careful not to actually admit any liability, which of course, is what he will have been trained to avoid.

It was totally predictable that the Senate hearing would win worldwide headlines. The Meta PR team would have known this was inevitable weeks if not months in advance. And so, two days later, we saw the release of a raft of good news. It is an example, I believe, of a carefully planned and successful campaign of damage limitation. After the global bad headlines, Meta surprised the market with three good news stories:

  • Its first ever dividend
  • Increased share buybacks
  • Revenues in Q4 up 25%, beating analysts’ expectations

The message was clear. Whatever happens in Washington, this global company is winning. Investors were reassured and the shares jumped 20%.

What is more, if you have access to this story in the FT  you will see that just a couple of days after Zuckerberg’s public berating by senators, the financial story leads and the hearing is not mentioned until paragraph 16!

It was textbook and effective news management.


Image: Mark Zuckerberg from YouTube

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