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No, Mark Zuckerberg isn't having a 'PR moment'

Meta has rarely been in so much hot water.

Tom Williams via Getty Images

Axios, a site known for political analysis and extensive use of bullet points, has joined the ranks of pundits fawning over Mark Zuckerberg’s PR strategy. The Meta CEO, they claim, is (as originally headlined) "having a PR moment" which is "casting a halo effect on the company itself." That's obviously untrue, but let's say it in a format more likely to reach Axios's audience.

The big picture: Zuckerberg’s recent PR blitz is neither out of character nor a sign of a freshly rehabbed image. In fact, Meta and Zuckerberg are staring down one of the biggest crises they’ve ever faced.

Why it matters: Praising the PR strategy of a gigantic company which is credibly accused of enabling a variety of mass-scale harms is, at best, irresponsible, even if that PR strategy was working — which it isn't.

  • Describing competitor products as inferior is exactly what executives are supposed to do. Zero points awarded.

  • The CEO of Meta responding to some of his social media comments isn’t a sign of radical authenticity, it's a ploy for engagement.

  • Saying you've "never seen Zuckerberg," who to the best of our knowledge is a living, breathing human man "act so ... real" is an astonishingly low bar to clear!

To recap here, Meta is embroiled in a massive lawsuit from nearly every state over the myriad ways it has allegedly harmed its youngest users. And Zuckerberg’s actions, or lack thereof, are at the heart of many of these claims. Court documents have revealed that the CEO personally intervened to block a proposed ban on plastic surgery filters on Instagram despite advice from experts that these effects could exacerbate body dysmorphia and eating disorders. Under his leadership, Meta turned a blind eye to children using its platform, against its own policies, and did little to stop adults from sexually harassing children. Under his leadership, Instagram’s recommendation algorithm promoted child sexual exploitation content and connected a "vast pedophile network." At the same time, Zuckerberg repeatedly denied or ignored requests from his top lieutenants to invest more in safety. Just last week, his lawyers were in federal court arguing that he should not be held personally responsible in dozens of lawsuits over the harms his platforms have allegedly caused.

The most viral moments from Zuck's Congressional testimony, which Axios bizarrely suggests was good for his image, was a moment when he stammered an apology to the families of children who have been victims of online exploitation on the platforms he controls. One parent in the room described it as “forced.” The second-most viral moment was Senator Ted Cruz pointing to a posterboard of an in-app Instagram warning screen which indicated search results might "contain images of child sexual abuse" and which also provided the option to "see results anyway."

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) points as he speaks, during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on online child sexual exploitation at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 31, 2024. REUTERS/Nathan Howard
REUTERS / Reuters

Needless to say, Zuckerberg and his handlers are savvy enough to know that none of that is good for the public image of the fourth-richest person in the world. That Zuckerberg has been particularly eager to share his quirky hobbies and newfound love of Japanese McDonald’s is not at all surprising. Distraction is a time-worn PR move, but no amount of light-hearted Instagram posts can blunt a headline like, "Meta Staff Found Instagram Tool Enabled Child Exploitation. The Company Pressed Ahead Anyway."

This also isn’t a new strategy for Zuckerberg. While it’s true he was once a painfully awkward and very sweaty public speaker, he has long since shed that image. And he’s gone through several different versions of himself. He spent much of 2017 on a listening tour of the US visiting farms and factories and random families’ dinner tables (many of whom happened to reside in swing states, fueling speculation that he was eyeing a move into politics.) And well, a political tour is sort of what he was doing: Zuckerberg reportedly has had a pollster whose full-time job is to track public perception of his often alien behavior. One such pollster reportedly quit after just six months, coming to believe the company was bad for society. Mark's favorability in a variety of public polls has ranged from very bad to extremely, laughably, irreparably bad.

This is far from the first time Mark has tried to distract the public with a personal hobby, only for his inability to relate to the average human experience to lead to a swift and spectacular faceplant. Take, for example, his infamous backyard grilling Facebook Live from 2017, wherein he managed to utter the word "meats" 13 times over the course of 30-odd achingly long minutes. It was awkward, but not quite as strange as the time Mark allegedly challenged himself to only eat meat from animals he himself killed, resulting in a moment where he allegedly turned an alive goat into a dead one with "a laser gun and then the knife," according to former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. (And like a true rich weirdo, he opted to learn how to end an animal's life, but, according to the same recollection by Dorsey, outsourced the butchering to someone else.) Perhaps more successfully, in 2019 he appeared to discover his love of foiling — which is like wakeboarding, but dorkier and much more expensive.

In short, Zuckerberg isn’t reinventing himself as much as simply remixing the same PR formula he’s been using for years, particularly when his company is in some sort of distress, which seems to be always. His people are trying very hard to make him seem like a normal guy through a mix of carefully curated social media posts, photo opps and talks with media personalities. It's a strategy that will continue to work on a handful of gullible people. At least as long as some of those media personalities — like Axios CEO Mike Allen — are willing to call men like Mark Zuckerberg "real, daring and unguarded."