How Mark Zuckerberg Can ‘Win’ on Capitol Hill

Most crisis-embattled executives who have been compelled to testify before congressional committees will tell you that there is no such thing as “winning.” The only truly possible outcomes, they will say, are losing or losing disastrously.

That’s because those hearings are almost always political theater. Most often, the committee members aim to please their constituents back home, the executives tactfully say as little as possible, and in the end, nothing really meaningful happens.

That may not be the case for Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday and Wednesday. He will begin two days of testimony before congressional committees as the likelihood that his company will be hit with meaningful government regulation is increasing.

Should he perform poorly like John Stumpf, the former chief executive of Wells Fargo, or Martin Shkreli, the smirking “Pharma Bro,” he risks more severe consequences. But if he performs well, as Jamie Dimon did during the London Whale scandal, Facebook could actually become one of the principal shapers of the new regulations.

It’s easy to speculate that Mr. Zuckerberg will not fare well, given his past avoidance of such appearances and his well-known discomfort with media interviews. And yet, two factors could help Mr. Zuckerberg do better than many would expect.

First, while he was inexplicably slow and somewhat disjointed in initially addressing the Cambridge Analytica crisis, he has since developed a comprehensive “narrative.” It not only addresses the company’s data privacy issues but also Facebook’s troubles with fake news and nefarious election influence.

That narrative served as the basis of both Mr. Zuckerberg’s media call last week and his formal opening statement submitted Monday afternoon. An abridged summary of that narrative could go something like this:

That explanation will hardly appease Facebook’s most severe critics, who want to see more drastic changes. Instead, Mr. Zuckerberg’s message — laced with promises of ongoing changes to come — seems designed primarily to allow Facebook to move beyond crisis.

To avoid making himself a fixed target, Mr. Zuckerberg is wise to not defend Facebook’s most egregious historical practices. During questioning, look for him to be highly open-minded. If threatened with regulatory intervention, assume Mr. Zuckerberg will earnestly repeat his recent assertions that Facebook would welcome reasonable regulation.

The real test of Mr. Zuckerberg’s new malleability will come if he’s asked if Facebook is considering adding a paid subscription that would allow users to avoid sharing their data with advertisers. That would mark a fundamental change in the company’s business model, a shift that some say would be required to truly solve Facebook’s problems. Thus far, Mr. Zuckerberg has staunchly insisted that Facebook remain free to its users.

Second, Mr. Zuckerberg should benefit from his growing comfort with talking publicly about Facebook’s issues. After the Cambridge Analytica story broke, Mr. Zuckerberg seemed noticeably anxious in his lone televised interview, clearly aware that the issue was far more serious than Facebook’s prior controversies.

But a week later, in his hourlong conference call with media, Mr. Zuckerberg seemed far more sure-footed in taking on fairly sharp questions and sometimes sounding almost eager to reply with detailed answers.

Mr. Zuckerberg’s performance may also be enhanced by private meetings he had on Capitol Hill on Monday. Those conversations won’t likely win him more favorable treatment during his testimony, but they likely served as a helpful warm-up before he sits down in front of the full committee and the live cameras.

While testifying, Mr. Zuckerberg’s first priority is to avoid generating a new round of negative headlines by tossing off a flippant, misguided remark, or by being goaded into a petulant state. But if he endures his inquisition with humility, respectfulness and sincerity, he could actually emerge much better off.

These hearings tend to serve as turning points in most major business controversies. Sometimes they add fuel to the fire. Other times, they create a sense that the offending big shot has been sufficiently chastened by a public lashing and the crisis starts to fade.

Mr. Zuckerberg will likely be peppered with plenty of barbed questions. But the most important one will be highly personal: “How can you possibly think that you should not be fired?”

At that moment, if he can convince lawmakers and Facebook users that he is the most capable and determined person to fix his company’s problems, then Facebook can begin turning the corner on this crisis. And if that happens, then Mr. Zuckerberg can actually say that he walked away with a small but critical “win.”