The Fast-Rising Media Company and the Tech Giant are Partnering for a Series of Important Interviews
About a year ago, right after the 2016 Presidential Election, Mark Zuckerberg ridiculed the idea that Facebook influenced the election as “crazy”. Oh, how far we’ve come.
Facebook, struggling to defend itself as it becomes clear how Russia and its operatives used the platform to spread misinformation and stoke anxieties, is currently in the midst of a large-scale PR effort aimed at influential and powerful decision-makers in DC. Beyond several long and reflective posts on its site from leaders like Zuckerberg, the company has also taken out ads in leading newspapers. Here’s an example of an ad that ran in the Washington Post last week.
Facebook has also been running ads on prominent Beltway websites. One of those websites, Axios, is taking its relationship with Facebook a step further.
The following appeared in Axios AM, a popular newsletter written by perennial Washington insider Mike Allen, Tuesday morning:
Facebook will participate in an interview series with Axios, covering questions about the company, the 2016 election and the platform’s broader role in social media. The series launches Thursday with my exclusive interview with COO Sheryl Sandberg: Watch it at 9 a.m. via Facebook Live on Axios’ Facebook page or Axios.com. (“Like” our Facebook page to get the notification.)
The series will cover the social, technological, political, economic, and privacy dimensions of platforms. Axios editors and reporters specializing in politics, tech, business and media will control the questions and coverage. The collision of these topics is the central focus of Axios’ mission.
All interviews will be on the record, and posted on Axios. Facebook will link to the coverage on its Hard Questions blog, designed to explore difficult issues facing Facebook’s global community.
While this version appeared in Axios AM, some version of it appeared on the Axios website and in their various newsletters. Axios, which launched this January, is led by three well-known Politico alumni. They’ve quickly become a go-to for scoops and their distinctive editorial style, referred to as “smart brevity”, has won them an influential audience.
The move is not all that surprising on either side, but there’s quite a bit at stake. Let’s take a look at why both Facebook and Axios are joining together for this series, what they have to gain, and what risks they face from doing so.
Facebook, after spending several months denying its influence on the election, then downplaying it, and finally slowly revealing how deeply implicated it is, needs to do some quick catching up if it’s going to make it out of this controversy without deep scars. The company has taken several steps to improve the platform since the election, and as Shane Greenup writes in NewCo, they’re continuing to develop new ways to fight against fake news.
Still, this controversy has put the company in a very poor situation. Legislators, academics, and others are beginning to ask questions about how Facebook should be regulated moving forward. Before the election and its fallout Facebook was considered a dominant player, one half of the advertising duopoly, but relatively harmless. Now, it’s often discussed as a dangerous entity, a threat to our democracy that needs to be properly contained.
Sandberg and the rest of the Facebook team are now being forced to step up to the plate and deliver some meaningful solutions to the issues Facebook is facing. They’re moving in the right direction, even announcing significant changes to its ad policies, but there will be pushes to regulate Facebook (and other social platforms) like other media entities. Sandberg is doing more than just interviews, Recode reports that she’s set to visit with the Congressional Black Caucus, and it’s possible that she will be lobbying against a need for the government to step in.
Whatever Sandberg’s specific purpose and activities, it’s clear that Facebook is attempting to control the narrative before November 1st, the date of both a hearing with the Senate Intelligence Committee at which Facebook will testify, and the day they share their third quarter earnings with investors. When it rains, it pours.
The interview series with Axios stands out because at least some of them will be live streamed, making it easy for Sandberg or other Facebook execs to stumble. As Mike Allen and the Axios folks are fond of stating, Axios has “editors and reporters specializing in politics, tech, business and media…the collision of these topics is the central focus of Axios’ mission.” All of this to say that there will be difficult, detailed questions. Axios’ audience, which leans towards educated and well informed, will be able to see through any half-hearted attempt to answer those questions. On one hand, you might commend Facebook for choosing such an organization to run this series. On the other, you might question why, so young in their attempts to patch up their brand, they’re not taking an easier path.
While Facebook faces a challenge, this seems like a pretty solid gig for Axios. It has been successful in building a core audience, it still needs to continue to grow both its audience and its general brand recognition. This was something that Axios President Roy Schwartz discussed on a recent episode of the Digiday Live podcast. Partnering with Facebook on such a high-profile project, one that is sure to be cited and linked to with great frequency, will certainly help.
Still, this is a big test for Axios. They need to appear to those outside of Washington as a strong source of journalism that can be relied upon to dive into this kind of complicated situation with agility and clarity. If they are unable to press Facebook, to get straight answers to difficult questions and press them past their pre-determined talking points, there’s a chance they could come off as passive and uninteresting. If they press too hard, they could appear aggressive and biased. Axios’ track record is strong, and there is little reason to doubt their ability. Still, for a brand that’s still growing and developing, this is a pivotal moment.
I’ve been an avid reader of Axios since its launch. Back in April, I wrote about the company, its business model, and its editorial style at length.
At that time, I concluded that Axios was well-positioned to succeed in the marketplace. They’ve continued to grow since then, and that growth has continued to provide them with opportunities to excel further. Saying that a company that launched with an exclusive interview with the President is about to face their most important and defining moment could be considered an overreach, but that may very well be the case. The President is a powerful official. The overarching system, one that controls how those who vote for or against that president receive information, is almost certainly more powerful, and at this moment in time Facebook is the most important actor in that system.
This week’s interview series presents both Facebook and Axios with unique and intertwining challenges. If done well, it will provide the public with new and interesting information about one of the most fascinating stories of our time, all while elevating a strong publication. But both sides face risks, and they must execute well to come out of this situation in a positive position. Whatever happens, this will definitely be something to watch.