Sheryl Sandberg: Facebook business chief leans out of spotlight in scandal

As Facebook faces scrutiny over data harvesting, the Lean In author and architect of the company’s controversial business model has kept a low profile

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal, there has been a glaring lack of leadership from Facebook. Almost five days of silence passed before its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, faced the public with a post to his Facebook profile and a series of well-rehearsed interviews with handpicked media outlets.

As the public bayed “Where’s Mark?”, his right-hand woman, Sheryl Sandberg, has avoided much of the scrutiny, despite the fact that she is the architect of Facebook’s data-centric advertising business and a highly skilled communicator.

As the social network faces its biggest reputation crisis yet, critics are asking if the author of Lean In, a book about leadership in business, is choosing to lean out of the limelight.

“It’s truly remarkable that Sandberg hasn’t come under greater public scrutiny for this crisis, since she is widely perceived to be the ‘adult’ who was hired to manage these kinds of political situations in a savvy way for the company,” said Kara Alaimo, assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University.

Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist who said he encouraged Mark Zuckerberg to hire Sandberg, and who helped poach her from Google about a decade ago, pointed out the executive had long been “applauded for Facebook’s extraordinary growth and profitability”. “Now that the dark side of that success has been exposed, she needs to do a better job of accepting responsibility for the consequences of the choices she makes,” he said.

“She’s not leaning in at all,” McNamee said, in a reference Sandberg’s widely read book published five years ago. “If ever there was a time for her to lean in, this is it.”

Sandberg joined Facebook as chief operating officer from Google in March 2008, at a time when Facebook was growing rapidly but bleeding cash. She brought a wealth of managerial and operations experience, emotional intelligence, political acumen and, crucially, firsthand knowledge of how to build a sophisticated advertising business based on user data.

At Google, Sandberg was instrumental in developing the company’s lucrative advertising programs, AdWords and AdSense. As soon as she arrived at Facebook, Sandberg asked staff what business Facebook was in. “Everyone had their own ideas,” she told Vanity Fair in 2013. “But through that process, the people who were the important decision-makers became committed to ads.”

Under Sandberg’s leadership, an ad model that took advantage of Facebook’s social graph emerged, starting with “engagement ads” that invited users to “like” the page of an advertiser and interact with the brand. Later, Facebook developed “custom audiences”, allowing external advertisers to merge the data they had about individuals with Facebook’s data.

This meant companies could micro-target their existing customers on the platform, layering their own customer data with Facebook’s invaluable information about likes, friends and biographical material. In politics, the integration of campaign data with Facebook’s data was a game changer and critical to Barack Obama’s 2012 election. That year, four years after Sandberg’s arrival, Facebook started co-sponsoring presidential debates in the Republican primaries. In 2015, Facebook rolled out features to allow advertisers to target “political influencers” – people who like lots of political pages, click on political ads and share content from political organisations.

Tools such as these made Facebook extraordinarily profitable, with sales of about $40bn in 2017. But they also left the company susceptible to privacy violations, and criticisms that it was surveilling its own users or corrupting the democratic process.

“Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups. Is that democratic?” said the inventor of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee, in March last year.

Mark Zuckerberg with Sheryl Sandberg in 2014.
Mark Zuckerberg with Sheryl Sandberg in 2014. Photograph: Andrew Gombert/EPA

The problem is, targeted advertising is Facebook’s lifeblood – and that of the broader online marketing industry.

“They are in a massive business model bind. To acknowledge the larger issue is to admit there’s a serious threat to their core business model,” said the entrepreneur and writer John Battelle. “That’s why Sheryl, who really runs the business, hasn’t been full-throated about this.”

Since the controversy over Facebook data acquired by Cambridge Analytica first erupted, Sandberg did grant one interview with CNBC and has shared a couple of Zuckerberg’s posts on the matter.

“This was a huge breach of trust,” Sandberg told CNBC’s Julia Boorstin. “People come to Facebook every day and they depend on us to protect their data and I am so sorry that we let so many people down.”

Behind the scenes, Sandberg has been meeting with policymakers and advertisers, working hard to manage the fallout as Facebook users start to question the very business model she introduced to the social network. However, other than the CNBC appearance, Sandberg, the architect of the business model that is now the subject of so much scrutiny, has remained silent in public.

“She has the communications chops to have been successfully deployed early on as their most formidable weapon in the crisis communications arsenal that Facebook has,” said Bob Pickard, a public relations veteran. “Had she been unleashed early on, it’s entirely possible there would not have been this public demand that Zuckerberg issue a statement.”

Others disagree, believing that having anyone less than the CEO – even someone with Sandberg’s stature – would have been deemed insufficient given the intensity of the crisis.

“If Sandberg were to be very visible, there would still be a desire to hear from Zuckerberg as the founder and iconic figure representing the company,” said Jeff Hauser, of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Staying away from the public relations battle also allows Sandberg to protect her personal brand, which extends beyond Facebook and into her hugely popular books: Lean In, which explains why women are held back in the workplace and proposes solutions, and Option B, the self-help book she wrote after her 47-year-old husband Dave Goldberg died suddenly at the gym in 2015.

“Avoiding direct scrutiny allows Sandberg to hold on to as much of her image as she had before the year and a half of hell for Facebook,” added Hauser. “The persona she crafted so carefully is imperiled by the behaviour she facilitated on Facebook.”

Hauser added that it was also strategically valuable for Facebook to have a figure who was “relatively un-besmirched as a backup plan”.

There are also suggestions that Sandberg might have political ambitions post-Facebook.

Before working at Google, Sandberg was chief of staff for Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary Larry Summers and she is very well regarded among policymakers. During the last presidential election, Sandberg was a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton and even tipped as a possible treasury secretary.

All of which make her a potential candidate for two of the most powerful positions in the world: the next CEO of Facebook, should Zuckerberg ever choose to step-down, or even a future occupant of the White House.

If a political career is on the horizon, it might be prudent for Sandberg to be more publicly engaged with the crisis, said Adam Hodge, a crisis communications strategist from SKDKnickerbocker. “One way to distinguish yourself is to step up and show leadership and be the face and voice of fixing a problem and turning a corner,” he said.


Olivia Solon in San Francisco

The GuardianTramp

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