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Zuckerberg built an instant gratification machine — but took his time addressing the trouble it’s caused

Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg did not speak up until four days after the Cambridge Analytica crisis erupted -- a veritable lifetime in today's crisis playbook. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

After Mark Zuckerberg broke his silence Wednesday about the mushrooming Cambridge Analytica scandal, it's hard to argue the Facebook founder and CEO has said too little.

Zuckerberg wrote a 935-word Facebook post Wednesday where he said "we have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can't then we don't deserve to serve you," outlining steps the company was taking following blockbuster reports about user data being scraped without their consent.

He sat for interviews with the New York Times, Wired, tech publication Recode and a rare on-camera interview with CNN. He was reflective and apologized, calling the episode a "major breach of trust," saying he'd testify before Congress if deemed the right person, and admitting he regretted not telling users earlier about their data being accessed. "I think we got that wrong," he told CNN's Laurie Segall. "We're committed to getting that right going forward."

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But despite the Facebook post and parade of media interviews, crisis experts argue Zuckerberg's personal response came much too late. Though the company had issued statements and other executives had made remarks on social media, Zuckerberg did not speak up until four days after the crisis erupted -- a veritable lifetime in today's crisis playbook.

"I believe you have about 15 minutes to get on top of these things," said Davia Temin, a communications and management coach on reputation issues. Facebook, she said, "defines real time for our world, so the expectation for them is that they would be real time, too."

The great irony, in other words, of such a delayed response is that it came, of all places, from the CEO of Facebook. It was Zuckerberg, after all, who founded the platform that is perhaps most responsible -- in addition to Twitter -- for the expectation that leaders speak up immediately. It was Zuckerberg who, even if unwittingly, turned on the microphone that is now always on with the expectation that executives use it.

Zuckerberg's platform has also contributed substantially to a society that expects immediate gratification, one where users post photos of their baby's first steps or the artisanal meal they just ate and wait eagerly for their friends' "likes" and comments.

"For the company that did so much to create the instant reaction society, to not have a response in real time from its CEO is surprising," said Carreen Winters, chief strategy officer for MWW Public Relations.

Facebook has also been one of the primary contributors to the expectation that corporations -- and particularly one like Facebook -- should put on a more human face. As Wired senior writer Jessi Hempel wrote in a column Wednesday, "he intuited earlier than most that a decade after the internet's introduction, people had begun to trust individuals over companies, and the best way to build a 21st-century business was to build it in the guise of a person," noting his quote in Bloomberg BusinessWeek last fall where Zuckerberg said "people trust people, not institutions."

As a result, Zuckerberg hasn't shied away from being the face of Facebook. He's positioned himself as a relatable individual -- one who did a 50-state tour that had the Silicon Valley engineer meeting military veterans in Kansas, ordering cheesesteaks in Philadelphia and riding a tractor in Wisconsin. He frequently posts family photos on his page, which is followed by 105 million people, such as his daughter's first day of preschool or his family's coordinated Halloween costumes (characters from "Where the Wild Things Are").

That's not exactly the CEO one might expect to wait days to speak up about what has been called his company's existential crisis. In his interview with the Times, Zuckerberg said "I really wanted to make sure we had a full and accurate understanding of everything that happened" in response to a question about the delay. "I know that there was a lot of pressure to speak sooner, but my assessment was that it was more important that what we said was fully accurate." An email to a Facebook spokesperson was not immediately returned.

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While not rushing to judgment is important, crisis advisers say there is a way to be both immediate and careful.

"I would rather have seen a continuing conversation from him -- saying a little bit quickly, then a little bit more, then a little bit more," Temin said. That way, "he would become the trusted voice in his own crisis."

That issue -- trust -- is another reason why a quick response from the CEO is essential. Having a gap in time between the eruption of the initial crisis and the CEO's first response "creates more doubt, I think," said Seth Linden, president of Dukas Linden Public Relations. Doing so "helps to push back narratives you otherwise wouldn't have had to deal with."

It also helps to prevent people from wondering if the response has been too crafted. "Speed is about the presumption of honesty," Winters said. Speaking out quickly "goes a long way to establishing that what you’re hearing is the truth, not something that’s been lawyered up."

On other corporate flaps -- a price hike, see-through yoga pants, a tone-deaf remark from a CEO -- the stakes aren't as high. But when the issue at hand is the trust users have in a company's ability to protect personal data -- not to mention the role that data has in the election of our country's leaders -- the stakes are enormous.

"The higher the stakes, the quicker you want to plant your flag," Temin said. "And these stakes are arguably the highest of any crisis we’ve seen in a long time for a corporation."

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