What did we ask them to do and what did they do?
While we’re continuing to review our relationship with Definers, we know the following: We asked Definers to do what public relations firms typically do to support a company — sending us press clippings, conducting research, writing messaging documents, and reaching out to reporters.
Some of this work is being characterized as opposition research, but I believe it would be irresponsible and unprofessional for us not to understand the backgrounds and potential conflicts of interest of our critics. This work can be used internally to inform our messaging and where appropriate it can be shared with reporters. This work is also useful to help respond to unfair claims where Facebook has been singled out for criticism, and to positively distinguish us from competitors.
As the pressure on Facebook built throughout the year, the Communications team used Definers more and more. At Sheryl’s request, we’re going through all the work they did, but we have learned that as the engagement expanded, more people worked with them on more projects and the relationship was less centrally managed.
Did we ask them to do work on George Soros?
Yes. In January 2018, investor and philanthropist George Soros attacked Facebook in a speech at Davos, calling us a “menace to society.” We had not heard such criticism from him before and wanted to determine if he had any financial motivation. Definers researched this using public information.
Later, when the “Freedom from Facebook” campaign emerged as a so-called grassroots coalition, the team asked Definers to help understand the groups behind them. They learned that George Soros was funding several of the coalition members. They prepared documents and distributed these to the press to show that this was not simply a spontaneous grassroots movement.
Did we ask them to do work on our competitors?
Yes. As I indicated above, Definers helped us respond to unfair claims where Facebook was been singled out for criticism. They also helped positively distinguish us from competitors.
Did we ask them to distribute or create fake news?
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg issued a statement thanking Schrage and suggesting that she had not known anything about Definers. Mike Allen at Axios:
A CNN on-screen headline captures the read-between-the-lines we heard from both coasts: "Could be interpreted as a way of saving COO Sheryl Sandberg."
Be smart: Facebook seems to be adding a new realism to its founding idealism.
- Why this blew up, via The Guardian: "The work on Soros is sensitive because of the peculiar role that the Hungarian-born investor and philanthropist plays in rightwing conspiracy theories and among antisemites."
- Why the kerfuffle is arguably overblown, via Wall Street Journal editorial board member Allysia Finley: "Employing PR firms to shape media narratives and challenge the credibility of opponents ... is a standard business practice."