Mark Zuckerberg’s Tylenol moment

It will be very expensive for the Facebook CEO to respond as decisively to fix his ailing social media platform in the spirit of James Burke, who successfully navigated Johnson & Johnson through its crisis of trust 35 years ago. It will be even more costly for Zuckerberg if he doesn’t.

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Mark Zuckerberg’s frenetic media tour this week missed the mark. Though the honesty was refreshing, Facebook’s CEO hasn’t done anything to reassure the social network’s 1.4 billion users that they’re being protected from nefarious advertisers, campaigners and app developers – like, you know, right now.

Zuckerberg needs to grab a page from the playbook of James Burke, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson, who navigated the company through the Tylenol crisis 35 years ago, when someone laced with cyanide bottles of the pain reliever on store shelves in the Chicago area.

At the time, no one knew whether the poisonings occurred at the factory, during distribution or in retail. Rather than wait, Burke ordered a total recall of Tylenol, costing the company hundreds of millions of dollars. And before Tylenol shipped again, J&J unveiled a multi-pronged tamper-resistant system that has become the standard for locking down every consumable from aspirin to orange juice. His quick action and candor has made Burke the subject of case studies at business and communications schools.

In his media interviews, Zuckerberg achieved half what Burke did. He was candid. But he fell down on the quick action part. In fact, he as much as told the press that he still doesn’t have a handle on all that’s happened, nor how his company will fix it.

In other words, we’re likely still exposed to apps and campaigns built on the psychographic models that were used to manipulate the 2016 election, and who knows what else. Burke never would have allowed that. He would have started by ripping all apps from the social network. Then he’d set out to rebuild from scratch the system that dictates what those apps can do and see.

That’s exactly what Zuckerberg needs to do. Until the company understands the extent of the damage, he can’t leave us vulnerable.

No doubt, that would be an expensive undertaking. But not so expensive, I suspect, as allowing this crisis of trust to continue.

Already, the crisis has eroded our relationship with Facebook. Count me among the countless who soured on the social media platform during the years-long deluge of angry, baseless rants. And the changes Facebook enacted since last fall to clamp down on viral inanities have mostly served to mute any reason to return. When I glance at Facebook these days, the friends and relatives whose posts I’m accustomed to seeing – that I enjoyed seeing – have mostly vanished from my feed.

I suspect we’ll soon see that the loss of 700,000 users in the US and Canada last quarter was not a one-time occurrence, as Facebook has argued. I just don’t see how this too-little-too-late effort to return us to the good-old days of Facebook will work. Indeed, there can be no return. Because it’s not just Facebook that’s changed. We’ve been changing along with it.

In that sense, Zuckerberg’s challenge is far weightier than Burke’s ever was. After the Tylenol crisis, the pain reliever delivered the same experience as it had before. That’s not possible for Zuckerberg.

We’re not the innocent, naïve and wide-eyed users who flocked to Facebook to reconnect with long-lost friends and distant relatives. We’re more jaundiced and distrustful now. We’ve had our online don’t-take-candy-from-strangers lesson.

But Zuckerberg can cross that bridge when he comes to it. Right now, he’s only got one job: clean the platform of anything that could potentially violate our trust. And he’s got to keep those apps off the shelves, so to speak, until he can show us that they’re tamper-proof. So to speak.

If not, Zuckerberg’s Tylenol Moment could devolve into the counter to Burke’s: a case study for how not to handle a crisis of trust.

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