The deeply reported New York Times piece on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, and Sheryl Sandberg that came out yesterday is a number of things. Troubling. Shocking. Disastrous. And a portrait of utter ineptitude.
It's also such a failure of purported principle that it is an important lesson for business leaders. These days, when you pretend to be one thing and act differently, eventually it's going to come out. It's going to ruin your reputation, even if your job is safe. And it will never go away, because you're the one responsible..
If you haven't read the Times piece, you really should to see how not to handle a crisis. The three words in the headline give away the basic concept: delay, deny, and deflect. These may seem like smart moves, but only to amateurs, and, sadly, both Zuckerberg and Sandberg fell flat on their faces. If you don't have the time, here's the key takeaway list.
First, Facebook knew about Russian activities on its platform even while Zuckerberg publicly denied it. Even if you have questions about how much of a role foreign interference played in the 2016 election, realism says that it's a major issue in the U.S. that upsets many. Lying about it was beyond foolish. It was outright stupid. If that ever came out--and look, it did--it would be devastating to the reputation of connection and caring that Zuckerberg has tried to cultivate.
People might have said he looked like a robot. Now they'll think a lot worse.
Sandberg was supposed to be brilliant. She had major political experience and connections. This was the "adult" put in to help make things run smoothly. But it's not enough to be technically good at this level. You must understand business nuance and take the right path and separate good advice from bad. Sandberg completely failed, along with her boss.
The campaign to attack critics was like taking the worst of political plays from Democrats and Republicans and turning them into a toxic brew. Here's a sample from the Times's summary:
Facebook hired Senator Mark Warner's former chief of staff to lobby him; Ms. Sandberg personally called Senator Amy Klobuchar to complain about her criticism. The company also deployed a public relations firm to push negative stories about its political critics and cast blame on companies like Google.
Those efforts included depicting the billionaire liberal donor George Soros as the force behind a broad anti-Facebook movement, and publishing stories praising Facebook and criticizing Google and Apple on a conservative news site.
One of the things both Sandberg and Zuckerberg agreed to was asking a Jewish civil rights group to call some of the criticism anti-Semitic. And then they turned around and had a consultancy label critics as being funded by George Soros, which has become a standard tool in not only right-wing political but anti-Semitic playbooks.
They tried to smother coverage of the Cambridge Analytica fiasco and instead found that not only did Republicans and Democrats start to hate them, but tech rivals were able to use the disaster as a way to attack the company. So Facebook reportedly worked with other consultants to plant negative stories on a conservative news site.
But read the original full story. It's unbelievable.
Over at Recode, Kurt Wagner asked a great question: Who does Facebook fire after a bombshell New York Times investigation?
Although it seems unlikely to happen, the answer should be Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg.
If you're an executive and business owner, if nothing else learn the lesson to deal with your mistakes and let your purpose and values direct your decisions. It can keep you out of a lot of unnecessary trouble.