Mark Zuckerberg’s recent entry onto the national political stage, which culminated earlier this month with his first public speech on immigration reform, highlights how many of the key tools in online reputation management can be part of a strategic approach to political involvement and activism. (Strategic political involvement is also often an essential aspect of reputation management.)
Silicon Valley’s elite includes political donors from across the political spectrum. Top tech companies like Twitter are forming PACs and hiring lobbyists. But with his leading role in FWD.us, an immigration reform lobbying group that he launched earlier this year with longtime friend Joe Green, Zuckerberg has taken a step further into the political realm. He “is building a new social network, and this time it’s political,” Jennifer Martinez declared in a recent article for The Hill. Zuckerberg “is using his clout as a top business executive and American success story to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform.” With the right approach, Zuckerberg has the opportunity to repeat the success of Facebook with FWD.us, and build a network that will harness significant political influence. After all, the majority of the public now conducts their research online – and makes significant types of political donations online.
Unlike building a friend-based social network, however, that task requires navigating a perilous and intensely divided political landscape. FWD.us didn’t make it far before stumbling. Just a few weeks after its formation, the group faced backlash for ads supporting politicians such as Lindsay Graham and Mark Begich and lost a couple of high-profile members, including influential entrepreneur Elon Musk. In the future, FWD.us might be able to avoid such problems by hewing closer to Zuckerberg’s other political activities. By donating to both New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Newark Mayor and Senate candidate Cory Booker, he was recently able to prevent himself from being pigeonholed or harshly criticized for a more partisan stance.
In his New Yorker essay, Robert Packard skewers Silicon Valley for “solving all the problems of being twenty years old,” rather than looking at bigger-picture solutions. IN that vein, FWD.us has been criticized for wanting to do “little more than securing more coveted H1-B visas, essentially granting an influx of foreign, skilled technology workers to fill the Valley’s talent shortage.” Zuckerberg wisely addressed that point in his speech. “We talk about high-skilled H1-Bs and full comprehensive immigration reform as if they are two separate issues,” he said. “But anyone who knows immigration knows that they’re not.” He described the goals of FWD.us in more detail in a Washington Post piece back in April, and being more vocal about those issues in the future could help the group rise above the political fray. While Zuckerberg and FWD.us can undoubtedly cultivate a powerful political network in support of immigration reform, Elon Musk offered some valuable advice when he left the group: “I have spent a lot of time fighting far larger lobbying organizations in D.C. and believe that the right way to win on a cause is to argue the merits of that cause.”