Booker Defends News Timing in Face of Movie

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-09-26

Facebook CEO Wanted to Donate $100M Quietly to Avoid Bad PR

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg agreed to plunk down $100 million worth of his company stock to seed Startup: Education, an effort to boost the public school system in Newark, N.J.

The founder of the world's largest social network made the announcement Sept. 24 on a conference call with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory A. Booker, just hours after revealing the initiative live on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Zuckerberg is making the initial investment, which will span the next 5 year, but he will not oversee the funds. Booker and Christie will appropriate the funds as they see fit while Zuckerberg continues to build out Facebook, which sports more than 500 million users.

However, Facebook fought to push back the announcement because it fell on the same day a controversial movie about the company, The Social Network, was set to premier in New York City.

Zuckerberg and Booker confirmed haggling over the timing of the decision today on the call.

When asked whether the announcement was timed to boost Zuckerberg's reputation ahead of the movie, which essentially paints the young CEO as a greedy, back-stabbing programmer, Zuckerberg said:

"The timing was driven by the needs of Newark. The governor and the mayor can speak to this. As Oprah mentioned on the show today... the bit I was actually most sensitive about with the movie timing -- I didn't want the press about The Social Network movie to get conflated with the Newark project, so I was thinking about doing this anonymously."

Booker corroborated Zuckerberg's comment, noting there was some tense moments between himself, Christie and Zuckerberg when discussing whether or not to do the announcement the same day as the premier of the film, which opens nationally Oct. 1.

"I think the Governor and I were really pressing to go faster and quicker," Booker said. "The movie actually became a complication because Mark's team did not believe it would be good for him to make a public announcement at this time because of the natural cynicism" perpetuated by the media.

Booker Defends News Timing in Face of Movie

He said Facebook feared the announcement would be viewed as an "elaborate publicity stunt," adding that he, Christie and Facebook conducted "long calls" to convince Zuckerberg to deliver their news as planned.

Booker even enlisted the aid of Oprah to convince Zuckerberg not to allow a "fictionalized movie to deter him from standing up with us."  

Such is the tightrope Facebook's public relations feels it must walk to portray the company and its leader in a flattering light. The company finds itself in this position after several negative privacy issues tainted its image. 

Whether it was Oprah, or the dire situation in Newark's public schools, Facebook decided not to let a negative portrayal of Zuckerberg dampen Zuckerberg's largest public contribution ever.

Facebook, Governor Christie and Mayor Booker will be commended for their decision in some quarters, and vilified as showmen and hucksters in others.

Regardless of how people perceive Zuckerberg after the film airs widely next week, the CEO may have burnished his reputation with such a generous gift for such an important cause.

Meanwhile, Mayor Booker appears to be going all in for this educational initiative, staking his career on the move on the call today.

To wit, he announced the creation of the Newark Education and Youth Development Fund, a separate non-profit organization tasked to secure an additional $100 million to match the $100 million Zuckerberg's Startup: Education has committed.

Calling the educational situation in Newark is dire is no overstatement. From 2008 to 2009, only 40 percent of the 40,000 students in Newark could read and write at grade level by the end of third grade. Only 54 percent of high school students graduated.


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