Honesty is the best policy, especially for change (the token Facebook post that addresses a bigger issue)

A little change from yours truly.

If you’re a techy, social-media-interested, mobile-device-and-industry-loving type, the last several months have been an infofeast. And I’m sure you’ve been gorging yourself with tasty news-breaks and weekly statements from industry titans.

One such hot topic has been privacy policy changes from your favorite social media monster, Facebook, and its fearless captain, Mark Zuckerberg. If you’re not familiar with the issue, this post on The Evolution of Facebook Privacy from Matt McKeon provides a brief synopsis (for the record, I appreciate his dispassionate presentation of data and balanced view in the article – no angry bias here):

In the beginning, it restricted the visibility of a user’s personal information to just their friends and their “network” (college or school). Over the past couple of years, the default privacy settings for a Facebook user’s personal information have become more and more permissive. They’ve also changed how your personal information is classified several times, sometimes in a manner that has been confusing for their users. This has largely been part of Facebook’s effort to correlate, publish, and monetize their social graph: a massive database of entities and links that covers everything from where you live to the movies you like and the people you trust.

The issue has brought multiple stakeholders to the table: confused and upset users, marketing thinkers, social media strategists, internet theorists, business and management critics and even the Federal Trade Commission.

Many of these groups have different voices in debate as well. Jennifer Valentino-DeVries (of The Wall Street Journal’s tech arm, Digits) points out that search trends suggest that user consideration of deleting personal accounts has risen sharply in response to the updated privacy policies. One thinker from Wired Magazine’s Epicenter, (Fred Vogelstein, thinks that the updated policy could be a good thing – a stepping stone in Facebook’s quest to challenge conventional thinking about internet privacy. Other critics attribute complications to founder Zuckerberg’s youth (see this article from bnet.com). As expected and as before with privacy update problems, the social giant itself has responded to the backlash with apologies and updates (you can read about details from the CEO himself in a Washington Post article). And, as  Business Insider notes, Zuckerberg’s past (controversial) commentary raises cause for concern. Needless to say, it has been very interesting (and fun) to watch the conversation unfold.

Ok, there’s you’re token marketing coverage of Facebook news. Now on to the bigger issue.

Internet privacy opinions, young management critiques, user abandonment and social media theory aside, I think one of the big questions here relates to change and honesty. Let me explain:

As our good friend Dan Heath reminded us at the School of WOM, change is generally hard. Whether it’s good change or bad change (see the plethora of opinions on internet privacy), it’s likely uncomfortable change, especially in the period right after change has occurred. Also, change becomes more difficult when it seems, or actually is, complicated for those undergoing the change. Heath explained that in order to make successful transitions, “people need crystal clear direction that they are going to change.”

Most of the time, some level of change is necessary for any business that wants to remain viable – including Facebook – and that means that a business’s end users are likely going to experience some degree of change at some point in their relationship with that company. And there’s a good chance that it’s going to be uncomfortable to some people, whether it’s good change or not. So how do you navigate change?


The “crystal clear” direction that people need in order to process change. In short, it’s explaining the change, the reasoning behind the change and the consequences of the change to the people that it affects – and communicating those messages before, during and after the change occurs. Not everyone is going to like adjustment, but at least they’ll know exactly why they don’t like it and they’ll have the explanation directly from the source/cause of the transition.

Facebook effected a change that they knew would be controversial and difficult for users (this isn’t their first privacy rodeo), many of whom found out about the consequential modifications from sources other than Facebook. Users also had to seek third-party guides on how to properly handle their personal information after the change. Facebook did respond with admittance of mistakes as well as updates to their web service, but they came as a result of heated backlash from the community.

Pushing changes that cause people confusion and force them to seek other sources for clarity isn’t just a bad idea for Facebook and internet privacy, it’s a bad idea for any business making necessary transitions that have consequences for their customers.

We know that honesty is always the best policy, but nowhere is this more true for a business than in their ability to navigate the waters of change.

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