When Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen sat down in front of a committee of U.S. senators yesterday to deliver her damning claims that the social media giant was willing to “put their astronomical profits before people,” most people took her at face value.
The revelations were shocking for the way they were clearly laid out, supported by the documents she had leaked to the Wall Street Journal.
But they weren’t good enough for Andy Stone.
The outspoken policy communications director for Facebook was quick to discredit Haugen. Stone stressed in a tweet that Haugen had no experience working on the issues she was talking about in front of politicians and the world.
The tweet was typical of Stone’s communications style: brash and bitchy. He appears to love bringing the fight to reporters and whistleblowers who dare criticize the company’s actions. A former political communications staffer, he’s been with Facebook since 2014, and has been directly rebutting claims from reporters — to their increasing anger — for at least a year.
As with most of Stone’s tweets, the replies and quote tweets tell their own story.
If Facebook is the evil corporation trying to end the world in the comic book movie telling of our reckoning with big tech, Stone is the hired henchman with a black heart.
In the last 24 hours alone, Stone has gone after the New York Times’ Cecilia Kang, Engadget’s Karissa Bell, Forbes’ Marty Swant, and Protocol’s Issie Lapowsky. However, Stone’s abrasive behavior on social media seems to serve little purpose. It all raises the question: Why?
“I don’t understand what the strategy there could possibly be,” says one experienced public relations professional, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly. “I don’t understand what you gain from taking that kind of attitude with anybody publicly.” A good communications strategy requires building, cultivating, and maintaining relationships with reporters. Turning into a reply guy and calling them out repeatedly, and in the most obnoxious way possible, doesn’t help build those relationships.
“Facebook’s crisis comms on this issue are embarrassingly bad,” says Bob Pickard, principal of Signal Leadership Communication, a C-suite communications consultancy with experience handling public relations for some of the world’s biggest companies, including AstraZeneca, Huawei, Microsoft, and Samsung. “Everyone is talking about Facebook’s poor PR, which is often a proxy for other issues, but I think the comms themselves are indeed crap.”
Pickard points out that the company is already a lightning rod for controversy, and instead of focusing on tackling the criticisms head-on, it’s sinking to discrediting a whistleblower and arguing with reporters. “It’s a breathtakingly bizarre lack of self-knowledge and glaring lack of professional judgment that is making fools of their spokespersons,” says Pickard.
The anonymous PR professional also questions its efficacy. “Twitter is an echo chamber at the best of times, but tech Twitter is even worse,” they say. “The followers of a comms guy for Facebook are not exactly representative of the world. Who’s he convincing when he tweets those things? Who is the person on the other side of that going, ‘You know what, I really hated Facebook, but this Andy Stone guy that I follow on Twitter, he might be right’?”
The apparent inability to see an end goal baffles those within the industry. “Communication in its purest sense is taking people from position A to position B by presenting them with a story or a narrative that might change their opinion,” says the anonymous press rep. “What’s the story or narrative Andy Stone is presenting by shouting at journalists and whistleblowers on Twitter? I don't get what the strategy is at all.”
Another communications staffer, who has experience with three large U.S. tech firms, thinks this has to be okayed at the highest levels of Facebook: “You wouldn’t be able to do that and keep your job without it being approved.”
But on the specific attempt to bring down Haugen’s testimony, the staffer (who also requested anonymity) is confused. “Why would you approve that?” they say. “It doesn’t seem like an argument that’s going to win anyone around. She didn’t claim she was an expert on Instagram’s child stuff. But she has the documents written by the experts.”
In response to his inflammatory tweet about Haugen, Stone was publicly called out in the senatorial committee and invited to speak to the committee under oath. It would be a return to his old stomping ground of Washington, D.C.: between 2007 and 2009, he was a communications director for the U.S. Congress.
It’s the ‘It’s not enough for us to win; someone else must lose’ approach.
The communications expert with tech company experience believes that political background may explain Stone’s all-in attitude: “The people who are [political] party lifers do come with a zero-sum approach, and think everyone is a conflict. It’s the ‘It’s not enough for us to win; someone else must lose’ approach. Perhaps the approach they’re taking is formed more by congressional combat in the media, rather than a more business-first approach where your long-run reputation is the most important thing, not who wins today.”
As for the man himself, Stone did not respond to several emails and private messages asking to participate in this story. Facebook, for its part, denies many of Haugen’s claims. In a post on his own Facebook profile, company founder Mark Zuckerberg said he and others “just don’t recognize the false picture of the company that is being painted.”
Carole Cadwalladr, a Guardian journalist, member of the independent Real Facebook Oversight Board, and an outspoken critic of Facebook, calls Stone’s attack dog tendencies indicative of the “Trumpification of Facebook.” The reporter first saw the shift just before she helped launch the board, which acts as a watchdog for the social media platform, in September 2020. Facebook comms became “corporate PR that no longer bothered to try and answer journalists’ questions in good faith — just gaslit them and performed circus tricks out on Twitter.”
She and Stone have been antagonists for at least a year. Cadwalladr, who broke the Cambridge Analytica story, claims Stone told “deliberate deceptions regarding Cambridge Analytica and repeatedly trolled me.” (In the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook user data was harnessed to micro-target individuals around the world, with allegations it swayed their political beliefs.) “It was just in no way appropriate for the corporate PR of a trillion-dollar company to behave like that toward a journalist,” she adds.
And as Stone’s attack dog tendencies have moved from just Cadwalladr to the broader press pack covering Facebook — and as scrutiny of the platform has intensified as more revelations about it are made public — relations appear to have deteriorated. “It’s been a bit of a boiling frog,” says Cadwalladr. “My impression previously is that I used to bait him but most tech reporters treated him quite respectfully and kept their distance. That’s now changed.”
Stone’s approach also appears to be having a negative effect on those tasked with presenting Facebook to the world. Input has learned that one outside consultant just this week resigned as a communications contractor for Facebook.
The change in tack may be because a gentler approach simply didn’t work the last time the company had to weather a major scandal. Following the Cambridge Analytica revelations in 2018, Facebook largely followed the classic crisis comms playbook. It released statements, published what Pickard calls “overwrought apologies, [and deployed] selective strategic use of the CEO in softball exclusive interview situations.” Yet it didn’t change perceptions. “This issue was a total PR debacle for them, partly because — astonishingly — they couldn’t read the room of real-time public sentiment and strike the right chord,” says Pickard.
So the new strategy seemingly is the opposite of the last one. Facebook is going on the offensive. Yet it’s only Stone out of Facebook’s comms team who takes the obnoxious route in belittling and insulting reporters. “You don’t see others get into slanging matches with journalists and stuff on Twitter or anything like that,” says the anonymous press rep. “He’s the only one doing it,” they add. “It’s telling that it’s more about him than about a strategy.”
(That’s also true in my interactions with Facebook’s other press reps, who are without exception professional, courteous, and helpful. I haven’t interacted with Stone, other than to laugh at him on Twitter.)
As for what that strategy could be, if one exists? “He’s probably been told he’s free to engage with journalists on Twitter,” says the anonymous PR. “But when you give that power to someone who acts like he does and comes across like a dick, then this is the natural conclusion you come to. You’ve given him free reign to act like this, so he does. It’s likely not more complex than that.”