Mark Zuckerberg's $100 Million Mistake

"The Social Network," the movie about the creation of Facebook, was number one at the box office again this past weekend for the second week in a row. Who knows? It may even be #1 again this weekend, as well. -- Talk about a public relations crisis for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. After all, the film not cast him in a favorable light. It portrays a self –centered, ruthless young man in a such an unflattering way that would make most public relations professionals cringe.

Clearly Zuckerber and his handlers saw this one coming. That’s probably why he recently showed up on "Oprah" and announced that he was giving $100 million to the Newark, N.J. public school system. He also, according to New Jersey's Star-Ledger, "launched a campaign to raise $100 million more."

Talk about a misguided public relations strategy to correct personal brand damage! Fuggedaboutit.
What do I mean by "personal brand damage"? By "brand" I mean how the world thinks about you. How are you perceived? Just like cars and other commercial products, every human being also has a "brand." To put it bluntly, "what's the rap on you?"

Don’t get me wrong, giving money to education is always a good thing, but what drives me crazy is when the public relations geniuses think they can deny the obvious.

Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million dollars was an attempt to generate positive publicity. It was related to the bad press of the movie –- how can it not be? But setting that aside, even if the Facebook founder's motive was entirely positive and not aimed at generating good press, it will still be perceived this way. Why?

Because no one who has a working brain cell will actually believe that the bad publicity that was expected to come from the movie wasn’t somehow related to the decision to give away the money in such a public fashion just "The Social Network" hit theaters.

Fact is, going on "Oprah" with the mayor of Newark and the governor of New Jersey to make the announcement about the gift was a good public relations move. It should have been enough for Zuckerberg to show that he wasn’t some kind of monster. After all, Zuckerberg might not be a completely likeable character –but driven entrepreneurs who change the world rarely are! The public doesn’t necessarily need its great achievers to be warm and fuzzy. And great achievers frequently rack up a long list of enemies.

Bottom line, if you really care about your long-term personal brand, again, how the world thinks about you, then you need to take a long-term approach. And that's the difference between good marketing and bad public relations.


Because announcing his gift on "Oprah" immediately makes everyone cynical. And the cyncial point of view wasn’t helped by Zuckerberg himself looking like he wanted to have his cake and eat it too. How else can you explain his comments that he had considered giving his gift anonymously. -- That is like telling your girlfriend or your wife that you thought about sending her flowers but decided it against it in the end.

In addition, the problem with this tactic is that it makes his P.R. people try to squeeze too much message into too little space. Brands build slowly in the public consciousness. Think Warren Buffett. It took him years to become the revered figure that he is now. He did this by being true to himself and letting his reputation grow organically. That gave him credibility. You simply can’t force credibility. You know what Eddie Cantor said, “It takes twenty years to achieve overnight success.”

It is no secret, that it takes people a long time to reverse their opinions if they like a public figure and even longer if they don’t. Zuckerberg has a long way to go and the gift of $100 million dollars would have gone a lot further if it hadn’t been announced on "Oprah." But it should have been done later on or even discovered to have been done independently by the media at some later date. This would have allowed evidence of his passion to help people accumulate over time (months, years, etc.). And this folks is the difference between marketing and public relations—communicating the real brand to your intended audience rather than creating a fabricated one! Not a good thing!

If Zuckerberg, only 26 years of age, really is another Bill Gates, a modern tycoon turned philanthropist, then he has a lot of time to cultivate that reputation. Public relations folks often make the mistake of forgetting the personal brand they are representing. They apply a one-size fits all approach that is often driven by the fear that their client will never again be the subject of media attention.

The irony here might be that in the end the movie will be forgotten but the money giveaway will be remembered as a publicity stunt.

Remember, things are always easier when you keep marketing in mind.

John Tantillo is a marketing and branding expert who is a principal in Metzger Tantillo Marketing, a recently formed strategic alliance targeted to small business professionals. He also offers his own services as The Marketing Doctor and is a frequent contributor to Fox News Opinion. He is the author of the new book "People Buy Brands, Not Companies."

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