The infuriating invisibility of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg

Where is Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg? The alleged “adult in the room" has been nearly missing in action since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke on March 17.

To date she has offered up only one measly post, which echoed CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergFight looms over national privacy law Facebook teaming with nonprofits to fight fake election news China may be copying Facebook to build an intelligence weapon MORE’s explanation of what went wrong, and one interview on CNBC.

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For a woman known as a great communicator, not to mention the company’s critical No. 2 in command, credited with building the very advertising model that has got Facebook in hot water, Sandberg’s reticence is not only mystifying but also inexcusable.

 

Facebook stockholders are getting hit from all sides; with investors, competitors, politicians and privacy activists all lambasting the company for:

  • lapses in securing user information;
  • allowing Russians to post fake news aimed at undermining elections;
  • violating the trust of its users; and
  • declining North America user numbers.

Sandberg’s absence from the public eye raises even more concerns. Is she hiding out because she sees no solutions to the social media giant’s challenges?

Can she not reconcile stricter prohibitions on using personal information with expanding revenues? Or, does she not want her brand tainted through association as she contemplates a run for office?

Sandberg, the woman who became famous telling other women that they need to “lean in" has been most definitely leaning out as Facebook’s travails have come to threaten the tech giant’s business model. That is no overstatement.

As critics plumb the depths of Facebook’s problems, some are calling for new regulations that would block the social media company from mining its users’ personal information — data that is extremely valuable to advertisers. That would be a catastrophe.

Zuckerberg emerged from his bunker after four days of disturbing silence in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. His comments since have alternately calmed and alarmed investors.

His first response to the revelation that the political data firm had misused user information was a Facebook post (of course) in which he complacently reported, “The good news is that the most important actions to prevent this from happening again today we have already taken years ago.”

Since it is patently clear that those remedies failed he added, “But we also made mistakes, there's more to do, and we need to step up and do it.” As apologies go, it was thin gruel.

Monday, Zuckerberg said in an interview: “I think we will dig through this hole, but it will take a few years.”

That might not reassure stockholders who have taken a 16-percent hit in the share price since the Cambridge affair came to light.

The balance of the interview, in which Zuckerberg speaks grandly about Facebook’s mission of helping to foster “the global cooperation” needed to “solve some of the bigger issues, like maintaining peace, addressing climate change…and eliminating poverty," made Sandberg’s absence even more concerning.

Sandberg is, after all, the brain behind Facebook’s advertising business. She joined the firm in 2008 after serving as Google’s vice president of global online sales, where she learned the craft of profiting from user information.

She was brought in to provide mature management expertise after Zuckerberg had bombed at early investor gatherings. She also was hired to translate Google’s ability to monetize user interactions into a workable template for Facebook.

It is not a stretch to say that Sandberg turned social media supernova Facebook into a profitable enterprise. She is, logically, the person who should now be addressing the public’s concerns about privacy and controls.

She was paid more than $20 million in cash and stock awards last year to run the company. That tidy sum might not matter much to her; with sizeable holdings of Google and Facebook stock, her net worth is estimated well north of $1 billion. But it’s shareholder money, and they should expect payback.

After all, Sandberg is not only a top-notch communicator, she also knows her way around Washington’s power corridors; her resume includes a stint as chief of staff to former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers. As politicians in the U.S. and overseas weigh regulating Facebook, Sandberg needs to participate in that conversation.

Over the past year, there has been speculation that Sandberg might be considering running for president in 2020. She has resources enough to be taken seriously, and she has carefully cultivated her public persona. She is politically engaged, having contributed $120,000 to Democrat campaigns in 2016. Her book tours have taken on the feel of someone sounding out campaign themes.

Those themes are highlighted by her foundation, which is dedicated to furthering initiatives that flow from her two books, "Lean In" and "Option B." LeanIn.Org “empowers women to achieve their ambitions” according to her website while OptionB.Org “helps people build resilience and find meaning in the face of adversity.”

Right now the people who need help confronting adversity are Facebook’s stockholders; that’s who should be getting Sandberg’s attention. A low profile may benefit Sandberg, but it isn’t working for anybody else.

Liz Peek is a former partner of major bracket Wall Street firm Wertheim & Company. For 15 years, she has been a columnist for The Fiscal Times, Fox News, the New York Sun and numerous other organizations.