“We know we need to do better,” read the statement put out by Facebook’s VP of global operations, Justin Osofsky, after Robert Goodwin Sr., a 74-year-old Cleveland resident, was shot and killed by a murderer who posted the entire crime on the social network.
Speaking at Facebook’s F8 developer conference two days later, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg conceded that “We have a lot more to do here.”
“Of course, we need to do better and have much more work to do,” Liane Hornsey, Chief Human Resources Officer at Uber, wrote in the company’s diversity report, which was released after a former employee leveled accusations of widespread, explicit sexual harassment and discrimination at the company. Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey acknowledged that it “needs to do better” at stopping online abuse. Just this week, Unroll.me, a startup service that helps users unsubscribe from unwanted emails, titled a blog post “We Can Do Better” after customers realized it was selling non-personal data to numerous other corporations, including Uber.
The phrase has become a meme in Silicon Valley: even a protest of the shadowy data surveillance firm Palantir rallied around the website DoBetter.tech. When faced with a crisis, everyone wants to “do better,” but no one wants to take responsibility or apologize for the offense, which crisis management experts say could come back to bite responsibility-shy corporations in the ass.
“At a certain point, people are going to get fed up with the phrase ‘do better,’ because it’s not going to cover televised deaths on Facebook or other really horrible instances,” Sam Singer, the president of Singer Associates, a crisis management communications agency in San Francisco, told Inverse. “People realize that the phrase essentially is meaningless.”
“All you’re really admitting to is ‘hey, we’re a really good company and we can do better,’” Singer says. “When something’s gone wrong and somebody’s been murdered on your site, that’s not going to win a lot of fans with people.”
“Do better,” Singer explains, is something you might hear out of the mouth of a self-deprecating baseball player who’s just won the World Series: “Sure, we played great, but we could always do better.” The phrase implies both positivity and progress, two gold standards in Silicon Valley’s hyper-competitive culture of “wins.”
“Doing better on the playing field in sports and doing better as a corporation are two different things,” Singer says. “I think that phrase is going to come back to really bite the Valley in particular.”
Lanny Davis, an attorney who practiced in Washington, D.C. for four decades before starting TridentDMG, a crisis management firm, told Inverse that customers are rarely satisfied with vague promises to fix a problem, pointing to the early stages of United Airlines’s recent PR fiasco as an example of what not to do.
“If you’re going to say anything in a crisis, don’t use just rhetoric,” Davis says. “Start with an exposition of just the facts, good and bad. Then the next step is to apologize, and then the final step is to tell me specifically your solution. And then ‘do better’ has meaning.”
In United’s case, that order of operations was botched. The press was initially told the flight was overbooked, when a crew scheduling issue really caused the seating crisis. United’s CEO Oscar Muñoz also initially appeared to blame the victim in an internal memo that was leaked, before he took another shot at an actual apology for the second time.
“I promise you all we will do better,” was his next try.
But as Singer pointed, out, United eventually got it right. Muńoz’s second apology included language that other promises from recent tech firms have not. “I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.”
United isn’t a tech company, and it’s unfair to expect Facebook to “take full responsibility” for Goodwin’s death — his murderer alone carried out the crime. But both entities are major multinational corporations, and Facebook’s CEO has a consistent track record of passing the buck or downplaying a problem in the first stages of a crisis. The company’s perspective on fake news has shifted dramatically over the past nine months, moving from “do a better job” to downplaying the problem, though it eventually arrived at some concrete solutions to the problem.
The point, it seems, is that companies need to get to the point of giving concrete solutions faster, instead of offering a boilerplate response that shirks off responsibility and spins a volatile incident in empty language.
“I think the phrase ‘do better’ will become something that people look back on and say from a philosophical and corporate communications standpoint is not an appropriate or good phrase to use,” Singer says. “The more appropriate phrase is ‘we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard.’ If you’re going to be the industry leader you can’t just do better, you have to set the standard.”
But in the fast-paced, ever-changing world of technology, what that standard is remains to be seen.