Embattled CEO Mark Zuckerberg ended a difficult week by traveling to New York City to unveil Facebook’s News Tab feature today in conversation with News Corp’s combative CEO Robert Thomson.
Thomson has never been a particular fan of Facebook. But like every media owner he wants a slice of the digital and social media pies that have been monopolized up to now by Google and Zuckerberg’s groundbreaking creation. His Dow Jones and Wall Street Journal are founding partners of News Tab, as are the likes of Condé Nast, Bloomberg and BuzzFeed.
Media owners will be able to dip their beak in return for their presence on the platform. Zuckerberg calls it doing "a better job of supporting journalism" and "this is an important moment in our relationship with the news industry."
It was a welcome relief following his six-hour evisceration in DC on Wednesday by Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Maxine Waters (D-CA), Katie Porter (D-CA) and Joyce Beatty (D-OH) at a House Committee on Financial Services. Zuck told Axios’ Mike Allen (another News Tab launch partner): "I guess we just say this is going to be the more fun part of the week."
Admittedly, a few minutes of clips from a six-hour hearing can only represent snapshots of a long process. And, just as clearly, these can be very confrontational set pieces at which the congresswomen and men are sometimes looking to grandstand and score political points, not necessarily present the interviewee in the best light.
But Zuckerberg still came over as shockingly unprepared, hesitant and optically bad. He had either not bothered to research the topics that he and his team had been pre-warned would come up, or he didn’t feel the need to – which can come off as supremely arrogant, one of the traits the general populace and Democrat politicians particularly hate about Big Tech.
His seemingly blasé attitude to the wages paid to staffers monitoring content on the Facebook platform and the amount of diversity at Facebook when responding to Beatty was particularly poor.
Legendary tech journalist Kara Swisher noted in a New York Times column Zuckerberg’s equally "really light" speech last week about free speech at Georgetown University where questions had to, ironically, be submitted beforehand. She also noted the binary nature of Facebook and other Silicon Valley leaders, comprised of techies who believe you should either be with them or against them, with no gray areas in between.
Indeed, in an interview with CNN last November, Zuck admitted the media's view of Facebook was very different from his own. "We have a different world view than some of the folks who are covering us," he explained.
The Silicon Valley crowd find it hard to comprehend the opprobrium swirling around them. But this conundrum requires business leaders who can communicate in a more nuanced fashion. There comes a time when every disruptor has to face up to the fact it is now the establishment - and that time has already passed for Facebook.
Swisher observed that the congresswomen asked smart, sharp, cogent questions and performed many times better than the old white men who don’t understand technology and have embarrassed the house processes in recent times in their interactions with tech leaders.
Last year I complimented Zuck on a more polished appearance in front of Congress, one for which he had definitely prepared and undergone some intense coaching. But he was mainly up against the crusty old out-of-touch white guys on that occasion, not the new, younger, super-smart, hungry and female face of today’s representatives.
Zuckerberg has certainly improved his communication since that memorably awkward and sweaty appearance with Swisher and Walt Mossberg at the then All Things D event in 2010. But he seemed to take this latest appearance in DC for granted and fluffed it.
Some might say Facebook should put up COO Sheryl Sandberg for more public appearances and exercises like this, but at the end of the day Zuckerberg is the CEO and needs to be able to front up for the company and communicate effectively.
On accusations that Zuckerberg looked like a robot, had a dodgy haircut and can’t wear a tie properly, Swisher believes these have no place in the debate. She says the argument should be won or lost on the issues and the process should proceed from there. "Leave his haircut out of it," she adds, comparing these cheap shots to body shaming of women and other abuse centered on physical characteristics. Can’t disagree with that.
Big Tech seems to have finally realized it has to take responsibility for its products and present a more conciliatory and proactive countenance to the outside world. But, as I've said before, I’m not convinced Zuckerberg is the right person to do that for Facebook.
He seemed alarmingly out of touch with his own company’s policies at the hearings in DC. And there are now too many embedded negative feelings about him that just aren’t going to be able to be altered.
In contrast, look at the way Satya Nadella at Microsoft and Tim Cook at Apple, or even Sundar Pichai at Google, are approaching the task.
They are leagues ahead of Zuckerberg in terms of style, substance and communication – and Facebook needs some of that special sauce now if it is to turn around the incredibly negative perceptions about it that are dominating the public narrative.