How Mark Zuckerberg can prep to be Congress's 'whipping boy'

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will be submitting himself to a 'feeding frenzy' when he testifies before the U.S. Congress this week, facing questions designed to score sound bites for lawmakers, to fluster him and — ironically — to rack up Facebook likes. Crisis experts offer some tips.

Lawmakers set to question Facebook CEO about the misuse of millions of users' personal data

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will testify before the U.S. Congress this week about his company's response to the misuse of an estimated 87 million users' data by voter-targeting firm Cambridge Analytica. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

Keep your cool, Mark Zuckerberg, because this could get ugly. Show deference. Take your lumps. Watch your tone. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

So goes the advice from congressional experts and crisis communications specialists, who say the Facebook CEO's testimony this week before U.S. lawmakers on Capitol Hill will be unlike any public grilling the tech billionaire has ever faced, following the outcry over how his social-media platform facilitated the misuse of data by the voter-targeting firm Cambridge Analytica.

It will turn into a feeding frenzy very fast.- Dan Hill, president, Hill Impact crisis communications

"He's going to take a hell of a beating," said David Fuscus, president and CEO of Xenophon Strategies, a crisis communications firm that has coached dozens of executives to testify on Capitol Hill. "And if he doesn't want to just be a punching bag, he's got to find a way to get his messages through."

Facebook has revealed that Cambridge Analytica, which had ties to Donald Trump's presidential campaign, may have harvested data on 87 million users without their knowledge. In Washington, Zuckerberg will have to answer for that breach of trust in hours-long testimonies.

"It's a trap," said Rachel Bovard, director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute and a longtime Senate staffer. "Part of the public catharsis is being Congress's whipping boy in a very public way."

Lawmakers will be coming at him with questions designed to fluster him and, ironically, to rack up Facebook "likes" for their political grandstanding, Bovard said.

Joint hearings begin Tuesday with the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees, followed Wednesday with the House Energy and Commerce committee.

Zuckerberg's team will coach him

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is a member of the Senate judiciary committee which, along with the Senate commerce committee, will question Zuckerberg in the first of two joint hearings. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

He may already have been practising for weeks. A typical tactic will be to assail him via mock "murder boards," in which public relations strategists try to knock him off-kilter with their harshest questions.

Crisis consultants will likely teach him to properly address the chair and the senators, and drill him to deliver answers without stammering. He might be videotaped in a simulated hearing so his team can review his body language and correct his tone if he shows visible annoyance.

Had he hired Helio Fred Garcia, a crisis communications coach with Logos Consulting, he might be spending hours in a staged Senate chamber, with actors portraying lawmakers sitting on a high platform so he's forced to look up while answering — part of the "power play" of such hearings, Garcia said.

"We'd do a live-fire exercise," Garcia said. "He gets beaten up and screamed at — and if you talk like a leader, if you're prepared, if you allow yourself to get the beating, you'll get through it OK."

Zuckerberg might draw lessons from previous CEO flameouts.

Wells Fargo's lesson: Own up quickly

"You should resign," Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren admonished Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf during his blistering 2016 questioning over a fake-accounts scandal at the bank. Within a month, Stumpf did just that.

During his hearing, he offered "regrets" for the situation, but failed to satisfy senators with what was considered a lukewarm apology. He resisted admitting to systemic misconduct.

There's a teachable moment there for Zuckerberg, who remained silent for days after the Cambridge Analytica revelation. When he finally spoke to the New York Times, he didn't immediately apologize; later, on CNN, he offered a perfunctory "I'm really sorry that this happened."

That won't cut it in Congress, says Garcia.

"It has to be an apology, not a 'regret,' and it has to be clear what the offence was," he said.

Dan Hill, president of consulting firm Hill Impact, calls it a "slow-cooker crisis."

"They've just allowed the pressure to build and build, and it will turn into a feeding frenzy very fast."

BP's lesson: Take your lumps

Following 2010's Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, BP CEO Tony Hayward was ripped for sounding bored and arrogant in his testimony, and for declining to answer questions with flippant "I was not involved in decision-making" responses.

Hayward was soon replaced as CEO.

"It won't work if you go out there like the BP oil executives or deny the problem or challenge the member of Congress," said Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.

Zuckerberg needs to "take his lumps" without taking any rebukes personally, Glassman said. He is a potted plant in the room and shouldn't sound combative. This isn't a moment for him to try to rehabilitate his image. It's for lawmakers to take their shots, demonstrate their toughness on the issues and generate self-flattering headlines for their constituents to see.

"The biggest mistake he can make is to start thinking it's his stage," Glassman said.

Congressional hearings are "more about political theatre than policy," Fuscus said. He recited a common Washington saying: "The most dangerous place in D.C. is between a congressman or senator and a TV camera."

Big Tobacco's lesson: Be careful under oath

When the CEOs of the seven major tobacco companies swore before a House panel in 1994 that they didn't believe nicotine was addictive, the Department of Justice investigated them for possible perjury after leaked documents appeared to contradict their statements.

(Perjury charges were dropped after the execs argued their use of the word "believe" showed they were stating opinions.)

That did little to quell the public outrage and distrust of Big Tobacco. Within two years, all seven execs had quit the industry. Zuckerberg can find a way to be truthful without "falling on his sword and bleeding out in front of Congress," Hill said.

"It's important to go out there and be sincere and honest and respectful," Hill said. "But be measured. You don't have to let Congress drive the entire narrative."

That means pivoting the conversation to a "forward position" and getting back to messages about Facebook's values and how to reassure the audience, Hill said. He expects Zuckerberg will likely be coached on how to reference corporate failures, talk about fixing shortcomings and, if he's in a bind, "run out the clock" on senators with limited time for questions.

Auto execs' trip-ups and triumphs

Seeking a public bailout in 2008, the CEOs of the Big Three car makers blew it before they even made it to Capitol Hill, landing in Washington by private jet — then pleading for taxpayer money.

"Couldn't you all have downgraded to first class or jet-pooled or something to get here?" New York Representative Gary Ackerman asked. "It would have at least sent a message that you do get it."

On the flip side, General Motors CEO Mary Barra survived a bruising testimony in 2014 about the ignition-switch recall, and remains in her executive role to this day.

"She's the model of how to take responsibility, how to be authentic, to be real, to not shirk" the scandal, said Davia Temin, a New York-based CEO coach who also prepares them for testimony. "She had a plan to fix it even though it had been a matter of months that she'd been in the role and it wasn't necessarily of her making. She was brilliant."

Barra's ownership of the problem likely helped bring the scandal to a close in the public's minds, Temin said.

"Frankly, if I were working with Zuckerberg, I would bring out those tapes of Mary."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong