Facebook's outgoing VP of comms defends using PR firm to dig up info on critics

Elliot Schrage says Definers helped Facebook "understand the backgrounds" of its critics, but denies it pushed fake news.

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Facebook's outgoing head of communications and policy has taken responsibility for hiring a controversial public relations firm that's accused of pushing stories critical of Facebook's opponents.

Elliot Schrage stepped down from his role at Facebook in June but remains an advisor to the company's executive team. He has acknowledged responsibility for hiring Definers Public Affairs in 2017, just as Facebook was fighting the fallout of Russian interference on its platform, saying he approved the hire and "should have known of the decision to expand their mandate."

On its website, Definers says it uses political campaign techniques to help companies with public relations and offers to compile dossiers on "opponents, competitors and agitators" of its clients. The company was founded by former Republican campaign operatives Matt Rhoades and Joe Pounder. 

Facebook has come under fire for using the firm, with The New York Times reporting this week that the company hired Definers to "deflect" from the Russian interference crisis and spread information to reporters and the media about Facebook's critics.

Watch this: Zuckerberg defends actions after New York Times investigation

In a memo first reported by TechCrunch and posted by Facebook, Schrage said Facebook hired Definers after facing "acute" pressure over allegations of Russian interference on its service, but denied Facebook had used the firm to push "fake news."

"We asked Definers to do what public relations firms typically do to support a company -- sending us press clippings, conducting research, writing messaging documents, and reaching out to reporters," Schrage wrote in the memo. "Some of this work is being characterized as opposition research, but I believe it would be irresponsible and unprofessional for us not to understand the backgrounds and potential conflicts of interest of our critics."

Schrage also acknowledged that Facebook had asked Definers to find information on George Soros, a liberal financier and outspoken critic of Facebook. He said the information was compiled from publicly-available information.

In January, Soros called Facebook, as well as Google, a "menace" to society during a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

"We had not heard such criticism from him before and wanted to determine if he had any financial motivation," Schrage wrote in the memo. Facebook later asked Definers to help the company "understand" the groups involved in Freedom from Facebook, a coalition that has urged regulators to break up the social media giant.

In an addition to the memo, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said she took "full responsibility" for Schrage's team's work with Definers. She didn't remember Definers when she first read The New York Times story, but found out later that some of their work was in materials presented to her and Definers was "referenced in a small number of emails."

In a statement on its website, Definers sought to clarify the work it did for Facebook in response the Times story. 

"Definers was not hired by Facebook as an opposition research firm," the statement read. "Our public relations professionals worked with Facebook and the media to help the company roll-out policy announcements regarding platform changes, policy initiatives, and company news. 

"Our relationship was no secret."

Facebook severed ties with Definers on Nov. 15, according to The New York Times.

Update, Nov. 21 at 2:54 p.m.: Adds further comment from Elliot Schrage and Sheryl Sandberg. This story previously quoted Elliot Schrage saying he took "full responsibility" for the communications team. The story has been updated to reflect this comment came from Sheryl Sandberg. 

Update, Nov. 21 at 3:28 p.m.: Adds more background about why Facebook asked Definers to find information on Soros. 

Update, Nov. 21 at 5:51 p.m.: Adds statement from Definers. 

The great Facebook exodus

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