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Business schools are always looking for case studies — and so far this year they have been spoilt for choice. Among the most pored over must be the interview Mark Zuckerberg gave in March to CNN in the immediate aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica data breach.
What is a chief executive to do in the hours after disaster strikes? What are the “right” techniques, the appropriate demeanour, the suitable attire? In the middle of a PR catastrophe, as every business student knows, the rules for the leader on the television studio sofa — and everywhere else — are clear: acknowledge the fault and explain how the company is going to fix it.
There are two problems with this well-worn advice. The first, as Zuckerberg discovered, is that it is impossible to pull off if you are inept at presentation under pressure.
With the charisma of an adolescent winging it through a classroom assignment, Zuckerberg gulped, perspired and stared through 15 minutes of light grilling on a grave and existential threat to his company. Data on 50m Facebook users (it later admitted the figure was 87m) were harvested and allegedly used by Cambridge Analytica, a UK data analytics outfit. Facebook’s share price tumbled. Regulators and lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic, including the US Federal Trade Commission, were circling.
Zuckerberg failed to follow the advice and obfuscated: “We’re going to go now and investigate every app that has access to a large amount of information from before we locked down our platform and if we detect any suspicious activity we’re going to do a full, forensic audit and make sure no one out there is improperly using data.” Then he said something similar all over again.
Like many leaders, he clearly struggles in such circumstances, though a few days later he did deliver a narrative of sorts about munificence and free services for poor people when he spoke to US news site Vox. When he gave a news conference more than two weeks after the breach, he was more poised — but when he appeared before Congress in April, it was back to the robotic stare.
Anyone who has been trained in public speaking may have sympathy. The chief executive as storyteller-in-chief is a cliché. It is also nearly impossible in disaster’s midst.
In Zuckerberg’s defence, not many are good at this. According to FT research, the ability to explain is a rare skill. When we asked leading employers what they wanted from business school hires, they said “storytelling” was among the most difficult to recruit. “Too much tactical execution and not enough big-picture thinking,” said one.
Next time, where might Zuckerberg seek help in pulling off a convincing narrative under pressure?
There is no shortage of guidance. He could turn to my colleague Sam Leith’s excellent advice, in his collected Art of Persuasion columns for the FT. Last year, for example, Leith explained how corporate leaders might learn from Tony Blair, the former UK prime minister, in adopting a relentless tone of reasonableness and candour. As variously attributed to Groucho Marx and George Burns: “Sincerity — if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
Or Zuckerberg might consult Harrison Monarth, co-author of The Confident Speaker, who advises in an article for Harvard Business Review to “wrap your vision in a story that fires the imagination and stirs the soul”. That could explain the Vox interview.
But given the scale of the disaster facing Facebook, Zuckerberg might prefer to seek advice elsewhere. Which could lead him nicely to the second problem with well-worn business school advice to “acknowledge and explain”.
Patsy Rodenburg is head of voice at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama and a teacher at the Michael Howard Studios in New York. She trains actors — Judi Dench and Ian McKellen among them — and corporate leaders. She has some excellent suggestions: “The central point about leadership is to recognise that everything you do is seen. Be balanced and clear, don’t take up too much time, only speak when you have something to say. And don’t sulk.”
Prof Rodenburg not only offers a checklist but helps businesspeople work out what to say with what she calls “moral authority”. Here is where Zuckerberg might listen closely. In her classes for business leaders, Prof Rodenburg makes them consult Shakespeare (she is a board member of the Royal Shakespeare Company). Specifically, they must all turn to Sonnet 94.
Shakespeare reminds us how the best leaders have moral power. They are “the lords and owners of their faces”. In other words, they are in control — of themselves, their physicality and, above all, what happens in their domains.
Because the physical, stagy stuff of the classroom is all but useless without it.
Helen Barrett is the FT’s work and careers editor