When Sandberg Met Allen

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A Brief Analysis of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Interview with Mike Allen

Courtesy of Chuck Kennedy / Axios

This week, Axios will be conducting a series of interviews with Facebook executives about the company’s influence in the 2016 election, the challenges it faces, and what it plans to do to solve the problem. For a brief overview of the situation overall, check out this piece I wrote explaining the stakes and how each group hopes to benefit from the exercise.

Axios and Facebook: A High Wire Act

The first interview in the series was also the one that is likely to be the most noteworthy. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg sat down for what became a more than 30-minute long event. The interview was live-streamed, leaving both Sandberg and Allen little room for error in a very high-profile situation.

So, how did they do?

Sandberg and Facebook

The short answer is that Sheryl Sandberg did ok. She avoided any real gaffes, and the only memorably poor exchange was her repeated attempt to claim that Facebook, which pays content creators to make content that it then hosts on its platform, isn’t a media company. For the most part, she stuck to a few obviously pre-planned talking points, working in several scripted anecdotes about people she had met or heard about who were doing truly amazing things…because of Facebook. She stated that because small businesses often use Facebook to advertise, which helps them grow, Facebook is responsible for creating jobs. Although it is true that Facebook’s ability to target specific populations has given these businesses a new and useful tool, it’s a bit of an overreach to imply that, before Facebook, it wasn’t possible to grow through advertising. This kind of grand gesturing was commonplace.

More than anything else, she sounded like a politician. Sandberg seemed to be trying really hard to act natural, while simultaneously dodging questions and sticking to the script. She seemed quite tense, which is understandable given the stakes, but also made it seem as though Facebook either has something to hide, is quite afraid of the situation it’s in, or both.

The tone showed the disconnect between what Facebook is — an enormous tech and media company that’s trying to gather and sell as much information as possible — and what it’s trying to position itself as — a fun, meaningful way to connect with people and build communities. They accept responsibility and feel awful when their platform is misused, they’re going to do everything they can to find solutions, but they definitely, absolutely, do not need to be regulated by the government.

All that being said, Sandberg is a talented, passionate individual. When she was asked about her foundation or her personal beliefs, she shined, she was funny, and she was genuine. This happened towards the end of the interview, at around the 28-minute mark, and stood in stark contrast to the corporate script she was speaking from for most of the event.

Allen and Axios

Mike Allen did an excellent job with this interview. To be frank, it would have surprising if he didn’t, but his performance was especially commendable. He pressed Sandberg several times, on whether Russia targeted the same voters as the Trump campaign, on whether Facebook was a media company, but he did not try to produce “gotcha” moments or embarrass his guest. His questioning style, friendly but sharp, helped to cut through some of the corporate speak from Sandberg and moved the interview along.

The only semblance of a misstep was an ill-timed but inconsequential coughing spell in the middle of the interview, but Allen even handled that well. If you’ve ever wondered whether or not people in interviews or on talk shows really need the water that’s always on their desks and tables, you have your answer.

The bigger question, of course, is whether or not this will help Axios grow. They’ve received a great deal of attribution and attention for the interview, a focus for many over the past day or so. Ultimately, this is something that will play out on comScore, in newsletter subscription numbers, and in exclusives yet to come. Axios definitely positioned itself as the kind of media organization that can host this kind of high-profile event with no issue, and future subjects can rest-assured that they won’t be beaten down by their interviewer.

All in all, the event was a success. Even if Sandberg didn’t say much, she laid out the beginnings of Facebook’s playbook, and Axios benefitted as the place where she did it. I’ll be quite interested to see what comes of the rest of the of this partnership.

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