By Eve Tahmincioglu
Facebook is arguably facing one of the toughest challenges the company has ever faced. But the slow and tepid response from leadership, including the boards of directors, concerns governance experts.
The scandal involving data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica allegedly led to 50 million Facebook users’ private information being compromised but a public accounting from Facebook’s CEO and chairman Mark Zuckerberg has been slow coming.
Could this be a governance breakdown?
“This high-powered board needs to engage more strongly,” says Steve Odland, CEO of the Committee for Economic Development and a board member for General Mills, Inc. and Analogic Corporation. Facebook’s board includes Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings; Susan D. Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of The Gates Foundation; the former chairman of American Express Kenneth I. Chenault; and PayPal cofounder Peter A. Thiel, among others.
Odland points out that Facebook has two powerful and well-known executives, Zuckerberg and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who have been publicly out there on every subject, but largely absent on this one.
While Zuckerberg released a written statement late today on his Facebook page, he didn't talk directly to the public, or take media questions. He is reportedly planning to appear on CNN tonight.
(Related Article: Facebook’s Zuckerberg Urged to Drop One Leadership Hat)
It was a long time coming for many.
“They need to get out and publicly talk about this quickly,” Odland maintains. “They didn’t have to have all the answers. But this vacuum of communications gets filled by others, and that’s not good for the company.”
Indeed, politicians, the Federal Trade Commission and European politicians are stepping in, he says, “and that could threaten the whole platform.”
Typically, he adds, it comes back to management to engage and use the board, but “I don’t think Zuckerberg is all that experienced in that regard. This is where the board needs to help him.”
But how much power does the board have?
Charles Elson, director of the University of Delaware’s Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance, sees the dual-class ownership structure of Facebook that gives the majority of voting power to Zuckerberg and thus undermines shareholders and the board’s power.
“It’s his board because of the dual-class stock. There is nothing [directors] can do; neither can the shareholders and a lawsuit would yield really nothing,” he explains.
Elson has been warning against such structures for some time, including in a piece for this publication on Snap’s dual-class IPO.
He and his coauthor Craig K. Ferrere wrote:
Increasingly, company founders have been opting to shore up control by creating stock ownership structures that undercut shareholder voting power, where only a decade ago almost all chose the standard and accepted one-share, one-vote model.
Now the Snap Inc. initial public offering (IPO) takes it even further with the first-ever solely non-voting stock model. It’s a stock ownership structure that further undercuts shareholder influence, undermines corporate governance and will likely shift the burden of investment grievances to the courts.
By offering stock in the company with no shareholder vote at all, Snap — the company behind the popular mobile-messaging app Snapchat that’s all about giving a voice to the many — has acknowledged that public voting power at companies with a hierarchy of stock ownership classes is only a fiction. And it begs the question: Why does Snap even need a board?
But some critics have waved Elson’s assertions away because so many tech companies, including Facebook, have been doing well by investors.
Alas, Facebook’s shares have tanked as a result of the Cambridge Analytica revelations, and it’s unclear what’s happening among the leaders at Facebook to deal with the crisis.
Facebook’s board, advises Odland, needs to get involved and help create privacy policies and if those are violated, they need to follow up.
“This is a relatively young company in a relatively young industry that has grown to be a powerhouse and incredibly important,” he explains. Given that, he says, there are “new forms of risk management this board needs to tackle.”