Facebook comms head admits hiring PR agencies to discredit critics as horror year continues

Facebook has confirmed the company did hire a PR firm to discredit some of the service’s critics including linking them to financier George Soros.

The allegations were first raised by the New York Times last week, and were confirmed in a blog post by Facebook’s outgoing comms head, Eliott Schrage.

Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, said the decision to hire the PR firm was not her idea

Shrage said in his post: “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.

“This pressure became particularly acute in September 2017 after we released details of Russian interference on our service. We hired firms associated with both Republicans and Democrats — Definers was one of the Republican-affiliated firms.”

Schrage justified focusing on critics’ links with Soros by citing a speech the financier gave at the start of the year.

“In January 2018, investor and philanthropist George Soros attacked Facebook in a speech at Davos, calling us a ‘menace to society’. We had not heard such criticism from him before and wanted to determine if he had any financial motivation. Definers researched this using public information.

“Later, when 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.”

In the post, Schrage said he took full responsibility for the company’s actions.

“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.

“I knew and approved of the decision to hire Definers and similar firms.”

Schrage announced in June he was stepping down as Facebook’s head of policy and communications, but would remain as an advisor to CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg.

In the memo released  yesterday, Sandberg was quick to endorse Schrage throwing himself under a bus saying: “I want to be clear that I oversee our Comms team and take full responsibility for their work and the PR firms who work with us. I truly believe we have a world class Comms team and I want to acknowledge the enormous pressure the team has faced over the past year.

“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 also want to emphasize that it was never anyone’s intention to play into an anti-Semitic narrative against Mr. Soros or anyone else. Being Jewish is a core part of who I am and our company stands firmly against hate. The idea that our work has been interpreted as anti-Semitic is abhorrent to me — and deeply personal.”

The revelations come a week after Facebook’s vice-president of global marketing solutions, Carolyn Everson, told Mumbrella the culture within the social network is changing for the better with an greater emphasis on transparency.

Schrage went onto claim Facebook’s legal team was reviewing the company’s work with Definers to understand what happened while Zuckerberg and Sandberg have also asked global head of comms, Nick Clegg to review the corporation’s dealings with communications consultants and propose a set of principles and management processes to guide future engagements.

Facebook hired former UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg as its head of communications to replace Schrage last month, following a year in which it was discovered research firm Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal data of 87m users which was later used for disinformation campaigns during the 2016 US elections.

In June, the company started its fight back against the year’s negative publicity with its ‘together now’ campaign, promoting what it does to fight misinformation and online misbehaviour.

Last month, Futurebrand’s 2018 brand sentiment index found the service had fallen 37 places over the past year, with the brand suffering issues in the areas including trust, admiration, passion, innovation and thought leadership.


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