PR pros click 'like' on Clegg's Facebook gig

Nick Clegg's appointment as Facebook's head of global affairs has been welcomed by senior comms professionals, despite a backlash from some quarters of the press.

Mark Zuckerberg, Nick Clegg and Sheryl Sandberg (image via Sandberg's Facebook page)
Mark Zuckerberg, Nick Clegg and Sheryl Sandberg (image via Sandberg's Facebook page)

On Friday, it emerged the former Liberal Democrats leader and deputy prime minister landed a post as vice president of global affairs and communications at the social media giant – a role that will require him to relocate to Silicon Valley.

The former MP for Sheffield Hallam wrote in a Guardian comment piece that he wanted to help Big Tech and politics work more closely together for the betterment of society.

"If the tech industry can work sensibly with governments, regulators, parliaments and civic society around the world, I believe we can enhance the benefits of technology while diminishing the often unintended downsides," Clegg wrote. "It is time to build bridges between politics and tech so that tech can become the servant of progress and optimism, not a source of fear and suspicion."

Last year, Clegg took a swipe at the media's criticism of Facebook and other social media networks.

The high-profile appointment wasn’t warmly received by journalists who have covered Facebook’s litany of recent crises.

The Guardian’s Caroline Cadwalladar, who broke the Cambridge Analytica scandal, ridiculed Clegg's assertion that big tech and politics need to come closer together.

"...what you don’t seem to have grasped is that the crisis gripping Britain and the one gripping Facebook are one and the same," she wrote. "They’re manifestations of each other. It isn’t technology that has blown apart our world – it’s Facebook’s business model. It’s the monetisation of fear and hatred and lies. And what we’re witnessing here in Britain is a compromised government colluding with a compromised technology platform to cover up the truth of what happened in the EU referendum."

Cadwalladar’s point is that Clegg, a fierce Remainer, has compromised his personal values for a lucrative role to help Facebook repair its image when the social media platform has been used to undermine democracy and is part of the problem.

The BBC's technology reporter Chris Fox said that Clegg's political experience within the UK government and as a former MEP makes him "well-placed to advise how to keep the regulators away".

As Clegg enters the PR and communications space, PRWeek canvassed the views of industry leaders. They say the appointment signals that Facebook is taking its reputational problems seriously and Clegg will be an asset when a predicted tide of regulation of Big Tech washes across Silicon Valley.

ReputationPR founder Simon Benson

It’s phoenix-from-the-flames stuff for Nick Clegg, the forgotten man of British high-level politics. This meteoric appointment is important for a number of reasons. First, it conclusively demonstrates Facebook’s recognition of the reputational battering it took this year and their intent at solving it.

Second, the appointment of a senior centre-left politician shows the company is willing to absorb the attacks regularly aimed at it by the alt-right, who many see as the master-manipulators of the platform - certainly this side of Moscow. Alex Jones is likely to have gone into orbit on hearing the news that such a huge job has gone to someone he’d see as a commie Brit.

Third, it shows that whilst the voters of Sheffield Hallam may have lost faith, Clegg is still personable enough and in supply of the political clout necessary to land what is arguably the top job in PR at the moment, whatever those in the Westminster bubble might think about his time as Deputy PM. 

Racepoint Global EVP and managing director Andrew Laxton

Over the last 12 months it has become clear that change was needed at Facebook. By appointing Sir Nick Clegg, it has certainly done that.

When you look at Facebook’s market position, the only serious threat to its dominance in owning our social data is from politicians. Facebook has already seen off challenges from Instagram (through acquisition) and Snap (rapidly copying features) to position itself as the home for our social data. Politicians, though, are not so easily stopped. Hiring Nick Clegg shows that Facebook has woken up and is taking the threat to this digital hegemony from governments very seriously.

Will Sir Nick be a success? Time will tell, but Facebook has certainly made a smart move as he already has the knowledge and connections to guide the company through the most tangible threat that exists for them – angry US and EU politicians.

Dynamo co-CEO Peter Bowles

I’ve seen a lot of PR professionals and journalists on social media question Nick Clegg’s comms experience, as if running PMQs, live TV debates and an LBC show count for nothing, but this misses the point. Facebook doesn’t need to hire more traditional PR people – they already have an army of some of the best comms professionals out there.

The social network’s gap has been highlighted this year in terms of having senior management comfortable talking in front of the US Senate, our own digital, culture, media and sport committee, and in Brussels.

Facebook have been trying to stress that they are about families and friends and not politics and news, but they face huge political and media pressure for more regulation in the coming years. Clegg’s experience in Europe and Westminster will be key assets as they face this new reality.

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