Big tech’s big communications reveal: the role of active listening

Grayling US account supervisor, Trevor Thompson, takes a closer look at the communications breakdown between Facebook, Twitter, their respective employees and the public during one of the most energetic debates in Silicon Valley taking place in one of the most tumultuous times of the century.

Big tech has gotten its fair share of attention regarding Section 230 and misinformation on its platforms over the years, but the past three months have produced more radical changes than ever before following pandemics, protests and presidential calls for reform, specifically for social media companies. Facebook brought back a former executive, Twitter just banned hundreds of thousands of accounts related to propaganda, and the French president invited Jack Dorsey to move to France (sort of).

It is becoming evident that digital powerhouses have never been more receptive to the stakeholders’ interests and frustrations. CEOs including Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey are listening and leading through action; but the course taken and how it is being communicated varies greatly.

How did it start?
The world began to take notice when Twitter added fact-checking labels to President Trump’s tweets, prompting readers to review certain posts that contained misleading information and blocking posts with potentially inflammatory messages. The same content was also shared to Facebook. Unlike Twitter, Facebook did not fact-check the president’s posts.

Shortly after this decision, hundreds of Facebook employees staged a virtual walkout in protest of the company’s inaction. In a move to appease the growing internal dissent, Mark Zuckerberg held virtual calls to share his reasoning to employees and civil rights leaders, which only exacerbated existing frustrations.

Facebook: a communications defense spree
During the pandemic and George Floyd protests, the private and public conversations Mark Zuckerberg had revealed his current communications style as reaction-based instead of proactive. Employees are quitting and lucrative partnerships are being lost.

A valuable tool for communicators is empathy. While Zuckerberg was visible and present, his actions indicated to his audience that he was not listening. By engaging with employees and civil rights leaders after the decision was made, he indirectly confirmed their suspicions that their opinions were not taken into consideration and that he was unlikely to change his mind.

After negative feedback from the public, the tone is starting to shift and so is Facebook’s leadership team. Chris Cox’s return comes the same day the company announced a chief diversity officer. Cox is resuming his duties as Chief Product Officer following a high-profile departure last year over differences of opinion in the company’s direction. Mark Zuckerberg is sticking close to the guidelines and policies the company has in place, but his recent actions show signs that he is working to create an environment to match today’s climate.

Twitter: The art of active listening
Weeks ago, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey faced a similar call to action by the public and employees regarding a tweet from Trump alluding to a conspiracy theory. Dorsey took a moment to pause before making a decision; he chose not to act but to listen.

After years of balancing Twitter policies regarding misinformation and newsworthiness, Twitter took a robust stand. And Dorsey is not slowing down on putting listening to action. He has pledged $1 billion to COVID-19 relief and declared Juneteenth a company-wide holiday, leading the way for other major corporations such as Nike and the NFL to do the same.

The implications of each CEO’s and the companies’ actions reverberate throughout the stock market as well. Although Twitter’s stock initially dipped after it first fact-checked the posts, as of Friday it rose higher than it was before it acted. Facebook’s stock is still on the decline, but it will be worth watching to see what implications of last week carry over to this week.

Twitter and Facebook are essential parts of both facilitating and fueling national discourse. Twitter’s user growth has never been stronger but the implications of the conversations in the media weigh heavy on the public and governing bodies in terms of next steps. As the debate continues to unfold, it will be imperative to keep a close eye on the actions Zuckerberg and Dorsey take and the reactions of their respective employees and the public at large.