Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's embarrassing interview at the annual All Things Digital D8 conference underscores the mindset of media moguls thrashing about in the interactive wilderness.
Real-time assessment of Zuckerberg's performance by attending techies posting to Twitter included the unflattering likes of "disaster," "sweating bullets" "meltdown" and "not directly answering (questions)."
Clearly, Zuckerberg has backed himself and Facebook into a corner over its reckless handling of privacy matters for its more than 400 million members, despite recent efforts to simplify and clarify personal information settings.
It should surprise no one that the dominant social network -- with more monthly page views (570 million, according to Google's DoubleClick) than the next 100 biggest Web sites combined and explosive growth in display ads -- is in such an awkward and vulnerable position.
There is no executive training manual, user guide or road map for traditional or newer media concerns traversing the turbulent transition to digital interactivity.
Failures and successes are occurring in real-time on every screen -- just like the BP oil disaster. Most unsettling is the yawning gap between where corporate media is and where it should be structurally and strategically. It has become evident, even with youthful media players born of the Web, that consumer needs and expectations have been ignored.
" Facebook's imbroglio over privacy reveals what may be a fatal business model," observes Bruce Nussbaum, writing in the Harvard Business Review. Facebook began "matching social media technology to adolescent longing for connection," but has failed to mature with its largely adult audience, which cautiously compromises privacy for relevance. Preemptively throwing so much user information to target marketers and expecting members to opt-out if they didn't agree revealed Facebook's failure to keep pace with digital consumers.
That cultural schism was apparent in Zuckerberg's D8 responses and behavior; his discomfort became the message. Even boy wonders like Zuckerberg are wrestling with rapid change.
Many of Zuckerberg's harshest critics conversely lauded some of the comments made by Apple CEO Steve Jobs as being more newsworthy than the rest of the 19 featured speakers, which included Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski and "Avatar" director-producer James Cameron. (That's not including Zuckerberg's revelations of his scandalous IMs as a teen and embroidered Facebook mission statement inside his signature hoodie.)
Most important, but not surprisingly, Jobs that predicted portable connected devices such as Apple's iPad will replace personal computers as primary interactive platforms. He accused Gizmodo of "extortion" in the stolen, exposed new iPhone prototype incident and hinted at legal action.
Jobs' rare public appearance aside, there are plenty of critical issues for leading media-related executives to publicly ponder. Unfortunately, few are willing to candidly explore the unknown , confront their shortcomings and probe tough realities.
What have we learned from the mishandling of MySpace, AOL and Facebook privacy options? What's Plan B for more effective attempts at paid content?
Let's hope there is more blunt introspection going on internally at media companies than outwardly appears. Advertising and marketing, content production and distribution, and news concerns are increasingly baffled and battered by collapsing legacy operations, while struggling to forge new interactive business models. (Yes, even Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have them.)
That's why even media's biggest and brightest frequently come across as spinning their wheels. Most don't have a clue as to how to proceed; they are buried in questions, not answers.
Peruse the transcripts and archived Webcasts of conferences, earnings calls with analysts, and other presentations of the past 18 months and you won't find many bold predictions, admissions or thoughtful revelations. So much of the national dialogue on digital has become mind-numbing.
What's a media mogul to do? Here are four suggestions:
*Be honest about basic assumptions. It's OK to say what you don't know because shareholders, investors, consumers and business associates already know as much. Meet widespread acceptance of certain paradigm shifts -- broadcast TV and print cannot survive as static advertising dependent business -- with new thinking. It's better to signal aggressive pursuit of new concepts rather than cling to slowly dying business models.
*Be daring about conceding how interactive change agents will impact core businesses that must be dramatically altered or collapse. For instance, local broadcasting and newspapers are rooted in grassroots news, community, advertising and commerce that can provide a hyper-local framework for dramatic restructuring.
*Be creative about integrating true interactivity into your core business. Use it as a springboard for innovation and growth. Bulk static TV or print advertising becomes a finely tuned pitch to targeted consumers with whom ongoing interactive rapport and electronic transactions are now possible.
*Be pragmatic. Don't point to recessionary recovery as organic growth. It will become more costly to sustain deteriorating business models than courageously sacking and reinventing. The only thing you have to lose is credibility and profits.