Nov 22, 2018

3. Facebook admission caps year from hell

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

In a blog post on Thanksgiving Eve, Elliot Schrage, outgoing Head of Communications and Policy, tried to clean up revelations about Facebook's use of the now-fired Definers Public Affairs, an aggressive Arlington, Va., firm founded by Republican operatives.

The big picture: Facebook has followed a pattern throughout its hectic year: Pay too little attention to a looming threat, engage too little with journalists who are on to it, then rush pell-mell to try to correct the record, calm the storm and look proactive.

In the post, Schrage writes:

  • "We hired Definers in 2017 as part of our efforts to diversify our DC advisors after the election. Like many companies, we needed to broaden our outreach. We also faced growing pressure from competitors in tech, telcos and media companies that want government to regulate us."
  • "Who knew about this work, and who signed off on it? Responsibility for these decisions rests with leadership of the Communications team. That’s me. Mark and Sheryl relied on me to manage this without controversy."
  • "Did we ask them to do work on George Soros? Yes. ... [W]hen the “Freedom from Facebook” campaign emerged as a so-called grassroots coalition, the team asked Definers to help understand the groups behind them. They learned that George Soros was funding several of the coalition members. They prepared documents and distributed these to the press to show that this was not simply a spontaneous grassroots movement."

Schrage's mea culpa was followed by this "Comment from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg:"

  • "Thank you for sharing this, Elliot."
  • "When I read the story in New York Times last week, I didn’t remember a firm called Definers. I asked our team to look into the work Definers did for us and to double-check whether anything had crossed my desk. Some of their work was incorporated into materials presented to me and I received a small number of emails where Definers was referenced."
  • "I know this has been a distraction at a time when you’re all working hard to close out the year — and I am sorry."

A CNN on-screen headline captures the read-between-the-lines we heard from both coasts: "Could be interpreted as a way of saving COO Sheryl Sandberg."

  • Why this blew up, via The Guardian: "The work on Soros is sensitive because of the peculiar role that the Hungarian-born investor and philanthropist plays in rightwing conspiracy theories and among antisemites."
  • Why the kerfuffle is arguably overblown, via Wall Street Journal editorial board member Allysia Finley: "Em­ploy­ing PR firms to shape me­dia nar­ra­tives and chal­lenge the cred­i­bil­ity of op­po­nents ... is a stan­dard busi­ness prac­tice."

Be smart: Facebook seems to be adding a new realism to its founding idealism.

  • Mark Zuckerberg, who has lost $19 billion in net worth this year (down 27% to $54 billion, according to Bloomberg), said on CNN on Tuesday: "[T]hese are complex issues that you can't fix. You manage them on an ongoing basis."

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