Sand­berg is singed by Face­book fire

Im­age hurt by tech firm woes amid whis­pers to ax her

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

NEW YORK — For the past decade, Sh­eryl Sand­berg has been the poised, re­li­able sec­ond-in-com­mand to Face­book CEO Mark Zucker­berg, help­ing steer Face­book’s rapid growth around the world, while also cul­ti­vat­ing her brand in ways that hint at as­pi­ra­tions be­yond the so­cial net­work.

But with grow­ing crit­i­cism over the com­pany’s prac­tices, or lack of over­sight, her care­fully cul­ti­vated im­age as an elo­quent fem­i­nist leader is show­ing cracks. Ques­tions these days aren’t so much about whether she’ll run for the Se­nate or even pres­i­dent, but whether she ought to keep her job at Face­book.

“Her brand was be­ing man­i­cured with the same re­sources and care as the gardens of Tokyo,” said Scott Gal­loway, a New York Univer­sity mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor. “And un­for­tu­nately a hur­ri­cane has come through the gar­den.”

Face­book has been deal­ing with hur­ri­canes for the past two years: fake news, elec­tions in­ter­fer­ence, hate speech, a pri­vacy scan­dal, the list goes on. The com­pany’s re­sponse — namely, Zucker­berg’s and Sand­berg’s — has been slow at best, mislead­ing and ob­fus­cat­ing at worst, as The New York Times re­ported last week. That re­port, and one from The Wall Street Jour­nal, un­der­scored Sand­berg’s in­flu­ence at the com­pany, even as Zucker­berg has borne much of the crit­i­cism and anger. There have been calls for both to be ousted.

But fir­ing Zucker­berg would be all but im­pos­si­ble. He con­trols the ma­jor­ity of the com­pany’s vot­ing stock, serves as its chair­man and has — at least pub­licly — the sup­port of its board of di­rec­tors. Es­sen­tially, he’d have to fire him­self. Fir­ing Sand­berg would be the next log­i­cal op­tion to hold a high-level ex­ec­u­tive ac­count­able. Though the chances are slim, the fact that it has even come up shows the ex­tent of Face­book’s — and Sand­berg’s — trou­bles.

Zucker­berg in­di­cated that Sand­berg’s job is se­cure in a re­cent in­ter­view on CNN.

“She has been an im­por­tant part­ner for me for 10 years,” Zucker­berg said. “I am re­ally proud of the work we have done to­gether and hope we work to­gether for decades more to come.”

He also told CNN he in­tends to re­main Face­book’s chair­man, de­spite in­ten­si­fy­ing pres­sure from some in­vestors who be­lieve he should re­lin­quish that role. “I am cer­tainly not cur­rently think­ing that that makes sense,” he said.

As chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer, Sand­berg is in charge of Face­book’s busi­ness deal­ings, in­clud­ing the ads that make up the bulk of the com­pany’s rev­enue. She steered Face­book from a ris­ing tech startup into a vi­able global busi­ness ex­pected to reap $55 bil­lion in rev­enue this year. The com­pany is sec­ond only to Google in dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing.

But she’s also got­ten the blame when things go wrong, in­clud­ing Face­book’s fail­ure to spot Rus­sian at­tempts to in­flu­ence U.S. elec­tions by buy­ing U.S. po­lit­i­cal ads — in rubles. Though Sand­berg has de­nied know­ing that Face­book hired an op­po­si­tion re­search firm to dis­credit ac­tivists, she cre­ated a per­mis­sive en­vi­ron­ment through what the Times called an “ag­gres­sive lob­by­ing cam­paign” against crit­ics. Face­book fired the firm, De­fin­ers, after the Times re­port came out. On Wed­nes­day, Face­book’s out­go­ing head of pub­lic pol­icy, El­liot Schrage, took the blame for the de­ci­sion to hire De­fin­ers, a move that would seem to take some heat off the COO.

Sand­berg, 49, who was hired away from Google in 2008, has been a cru­cial “heat shield” for Zucker­berg, as Gal­loway put it, as law­mak­ers and the pub­lic crank up crit­i­cism of the 34-year-old founder. In Septem­ber, Face­book sent Sand­berg to tes­tify be­fore the Se­nate in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee, elic­it­ing a warmer re­sponse than her boss did three months be­fore.

Sand­berg, for­mer chief of staff for Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Larry Sum­mers, ap­pears more com­fort­able in Wash­ing­ton meet­ing rooms than Zucker­berg, who can seem robotic. Her pro­file is high enough that law­mak­ers don’t feel stilted when she shows up. She’s writ­ten (with help) two books, in­clud­ing 2013’s “Lean In” about women and lead­er­ship. Her sec­ond book, “Plan B,” is about deal­ing with loss and grief after her hus­band died un­ex­pect­edly. She was the lone chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer among a who’s who of tech CEOs — in­clud­ing Ap­ple’s Tim Cook and Ama­zon’s Jeff Be­zos — to meet with Don­ald Trump a month after his elec­tion.

“It’s both who she is and how bereft Sil­i­con Val­ley is of strong, pow­er­ful fe­male voices,” cri­sis man­age­ment ex­pert Richard Le­vick said. “She has po­si­tioned her­self as one of those strong voices with ‘Lean In.’ ”

But her high pro­file also makes her more sus­cep­ti­ble to crit­i­cism.

CNBC com­men­ta­tor Jim Cramer pre­dicted Mon­day that Face­book’s stock would rise if Sand­berg leaves or gets fired. NYU’s Gal­loway be­lieves both Sand­berg and Zucker­berg should be fired for al­low­ing Face­book to turn into an en­tity that harms democracy around the world.

“Ev­ery day, ex­ec­u­tives are fired for a frac­tion of in­frac­tions these two have com­mit­ted,” he said.

Be­sides elec­tions in­ter­fer­ence, Zucker­berg and Sand­berg have been crit­i­cized for their slow re­sponse to the Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica scan­dal, in which the data-min­ing firm ac­cessed mil­lions of users’ pri­vate in­for­ma­tion with­out their per­mis­sion. The pair were silent for days after the news came out. Ac­cord­ing to the Jour­nal, Zucker­berg told Sand­berg this spring that he blamed her and her teams for the “pub­lic fall­out” over Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica. Cit­ing un­named sources, the news­pa­per said Sand­berg at one point won­dered if she should be wor­ried about her job (though that ap­pears to no longer be the case, based on Zucker­berg’s pub­lic sup­port).

Gal­loway said it would look bad for Face­book to fire one of the only top fe­male ex­ec­u­tives in an in­dus­try where women “face in­or­di­nately high ob­sta­cles to get to lead­er­ship po­si­tions.”

Be­yond that, Sand­berg has also been a pos­i­tive force on Face­book. She moves com­fort­ably out­side tech cir­cles and in pub­lic speak­ing, coun­ter­ing Zucker­berg’s short­com­ings in that area.

If any­thing, Sand­berg’s de­par­ture from Face­book would likely be on her own terms. While Zucker­berg has spent all of his adult life at Face­book, Sand­berg had a ca­reer be­fore Face­book and even tech, so it is plau­si­ble that she would have a life after Face­book, per­haps back in pol­i­tics.

But first, she has Face­book’s own trou­bles to deal with. But Le­vick be­lieves Sand­berg can be­gin to re­store her im­age by ac­knowl­edg­ing her role in caus­ing Face­book’s prob­lems in­stead of blam­ing ex­ter­nal forces be­yond her con­trol: “The knee­jerk re­sponse ‘poor, poor me’ is not the so­lu­tion.”

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