Sorry seems to be the hardest word: Mark Zuckerberg's letter deconstructed by a copywriter

Andy Maslen has been persuading people to think, feel and act differently since 1986, when he first started working as an in-house copywriter.

He is managing director and head copywriter at Sunfish, the writing agency he founded with creative director Jo Kelly in 1996, and the author of five books on copywriting, including the best-sellers Write to Sell and Persuasive Copywriting.

The commentariat has got its collective knickers in a twist about Mark Zuckerberg’s mea culpa for the Cambridge Analytica affair. (Analgate?)

"A new media company going old-school with a letter? How quaint!"

But what of the writing itself? Here’s a brief exegesis.

The headline is a slog.

We have a responsibility to protect your information.

If we can’t, we don’t deserve it.

The first line elicits a reader response, “Yeah. And?”

The second elicits a “Huh?”

If you can’t what, you don’t deserve what?

To follow the headline’s own syntax, it means,

If we can’t [protect your information], we don’t deserve [to have) it.

But the sentiment is lost because the two sentences that comprise the headline are not congruent.

One is high-register language that scores a lamentable 18.9/100 on the Flesch Reading Ease Score. (As a comparison, the Harvard Law Review scores in the mid-30s and Plain English scores 60/100.) The other switches to low register and scores a commendable 100/100.

Ending with “it” is a feeble way to conclude a sentence – zero emotional punch (although maybe that’s the point.)

But also, look at the final four words.

“We don’t deserve it.”

That sounds less like an apology and more like a not-guilty plea.

A genuine apology might begin with the classic “I’m sorry”.

Perhaps this headline would be better:

I’m sorry we didn’t take better care of your data.

Or even this:

I’m sorry we didn’t protect your privacy.

On to the body of the letter. The first sentence is a classic of obfuscation.

You may have heard about a quiz app built by a university researcher that leaked Facebook data of millions of people in 2014.

It’s boring, for one thing, long for another, and devoid of emotional content. We are asked to analyse, not to react. The blame is immediately shunted off onto an unnamed “university researcher”.

Far better to start by saying:

My name is Mark Zuckerberg. I run Facebook. I screwed up. And I’m sorry.

And 2014 was ages ago, so, y’know, what’s to worry about?

It contains a grammar error, too. It should be either “the Facebook data of millions of people” or “Facebook data on millions of people” .

This was a breach of trust, and I’m sorry we didn’t do more at the time.

The phrase “breach of trust” is something a lawyer would say, not a real person. “Mum, I committed a breach of trust when I stole five quid out of your purse”. I suspect a lawyer did, in fact, write this.

The word “sorry” is buried in the middle of the letter’s longest paragraph and easy to miss.

We’re now taking steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

Given that he goes on to explain what steps they are taking, this sentence could come out. Although that would leave the “sorry” exposed.

We’ve already stopped apps like this from getting so much information. Now we’re limiting the data apps get when you sign in using Facebook.

We’re also investigating every single app that had access to large amounts of data before we fixed this. We expect there are others. And when we find them, we will ban them and tell everyone affected.

Enough with the apps already! It wasn't apps that did this, it was people. Possibly including Facebook executives. More water-muddying from Mr Z. Although “ban” is good. A simple, strong word we can all understand.

Finally, we’ll remind you which apps you’ve given access to your information – so you can shut off the ones you don’t want anymore.

“Shut off”? Odd phrase. Makes an app sound like a tap.

Thank you for believing in this community. I promise to do better for you.

A classic assumptive close. Personally, I don’t “believe” in the Facebook “community”. I mean, I believe that people use Facebook; 2.2 billion of them use it every month (source: Facebook).

But Facebook is hardly a community. It’s an app. And a damned leaky one at that.

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