Sheryl Sandberg’s Activision Blizzard mess could derail her work for gender equality

April 22, 2022, 12:57 PM UTC

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! The Obamas ditch Spotify, CNN+ will shut down, and Sheryl Sandberg’s work for gender equality could be derailed by her Activision Blizzard mess. Have a restful weekend.

– The Sheryl saga. Over the past several months—years, even—a question has swirled around Facebook: where is Sheryl Sandberg? As the company rebranded to Meta, the woman once commonly referred to as the “grown-up in the room” was rarely visible to the public.

A new report from the Wall Street Journal suggests one reason Sandberg may have become a less influential force at the social media giant. The newspaper reported yesterday that Sandberg in 2016 and 2019 pressured the Daily Mail‘s website MailOnline to kill a story about a temporary restraining order an ex-girlfriend of Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick—Sandberg’s own boyfriend at the time—filed against him. For about three years, Sandberg was in a relationship with Kotick, the CEO who oversaw a culture at Activision where sexual harassment thrived and allegedly failed to report a rape allegation to his company’s board. (The restraining order in question in the never-published MailOnline story was later dropped, and the ex-girlfriend, whose identity hasn’t been reported, told people some of the claims that Kotick was “bullying” and showed up at her home uninvited, trying to get in, were exaggerated. Kotick told the newspaper that the MailOnline reporting was “untrue” and the matter was “put to rest long ago.”)

There are many implications to this reported behavior. The British tabloid MailOnline depends on Facebook for much of its traffic, for example, and any inference of a threat to its business from Facebook’s No. 2 executive could have strongly influenced its decision not to run a story on either occasion. Meta recently began a review of Sandberg’s actions and “whether she violated company rules,” the Journal reported. “Sheryl Sandberg never threatened the MailOnline’s business relationship with Facebook in order to influence an editorial decision,” the company told the WSJ. (When asked for additional comment, a spokesperson shared the same statement with Fortune. Kotick also denied to the WSJ that Sandberg wielded her power at Facebook to kill the story.)

Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg and Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick
Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg and Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick at a morning session of the Allen & Co. Media and Technology Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho on July 11, 2018. Sandberg is accused of using her influence to stop U.K. newspaper the Daily Mail from publishing news stories about former boyfriend Kotick.
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/Getty Images

But most relevant to the Broadsheet is the tension between Sandberg’s actions here and her public position as an advocate for women’s empowerment. Sandberg, of course, is the author of the seminal text on women in the workplace Lean In and the founder of the nonprofit LeanIn.Org.

If she indeed attempted to use her high-powered position to try to kill coverage of her boyfriend’s alleged treatment of another woman, that would fly in the face of the public positions she has taken on gender equality. Ironically, Sandberg’s image is part of what compelled her to take those steps, the Journal reports. Sandberg was not only concerned for Kotick, but for her own reputation. “Sandberg’s legal and public-relations advisers, both inside and outside Facebook, worried that a story would reflect negatively on her reputation as an advocate for women,” WSJ reports.

The Journal reporting also outlines Sandberg’s and Kotick’s alleged use of paid advisers and Facebook and Activision staffers on public relations matters, including this one. Each executive “regularly tapped employees at one another’s companies for public-relations advice” during the course of their relationship, the WSJ reports. Knowing what we know now about the work environment for women inside Activision, that close relationship between the two companies is concerning.

As reporting has shown a diminished position for Sandberg inside Facebook, and then Meta, in recent years, Sandberg has continued to hold fast to her role as a thought leader on women in the workplace. (Her last op-ed for Fortune on the subject was published in October 2020). Even as earlier reports revealed some questionable decisions made by Sandberg during the 2016 election and Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, she persevered. But it’s hard to imagine that her position as an authority on women’s experiences at work can ever fully recover from this news.

The second half of Meta’s statement to Fortune says that, “this story attempts to make connections that don’t exist.” Meta seems to be commenting on any business pressure Sandberg may have placed on MailOnline from her perch at Facebook. But it’s hard to argue that connections don’t exist between Sandberg’s public persona as a voice for women and her actions in private.

Emma Hinchliffe

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- Seeking higher ground. Michelle and Barack Obama are looking for a new podcasting deal—and planning to leave their exclusive arrangement with Spotify. The former first couple are reportedly in talks with iHeartMedia and Amazon's Audible for an arrangement that would allow their shows with Higher Ground Productions to be distributed on multiple platforms, rather than as Spotify exclusives. Bloomberg

- That was fast. CNN is shutting down CNN+, the streaming service that attracted talent including NPR's Audie Cornish and cookbook author and food media personality Alison Roman. The short-lived streaming service is a casualty of WarnerMedia's merger with Discovery, which was not involved in the development of the platform. The merger also led to the departure of several top Warner executives, including WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group chairman and CEO Ann Sarnoff. L.A. Times

- Top talent? It's a rough week for the streamers. As Netflix's stock craters, losing the company $50 billion in market cap in just a few days, the streaming service is reevaluating its approach to attracting high-level talent. The company will be "pulling back" on its spending on awards campaigns (the streamer was behind director Jane Campion's Power of the Dog this Oscars season) and major deals with TV creators (Shonda Rhimes's deal that produced Bridgerton is among the most successful of those the company has secured). Vanity Fair

- Go team. Tennis star Serena Williams is reportedly preparing to invest as much as £10 million ($13 million) in a bid to buy the Chelsea Football Club. Williams and Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton are backing a bid led by British businessman Sir Martin Broughton and Harris Blitzer Sports and Entertainment, which owns the basketball team Philadelphia 76ers and hockey team New Jersey Devils. Financial Times

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: In more Activision Blizzard news, Substack VP of communications Lulu Cheng Meservey and Bacardi SVP Kerry Carr are joining the company's board. Former Collective Health and McKesson executive Ana Shrank has joined Truepill as chief financial officer. Estée Lauder’s head of human resources for global corporate functions Christina Schelling will join Verizon as senior vice president of talent and diversity. 


- History lessons.  Viola Davis is partnering with streaming service Discovery+ to executive produce Hungry for Answers, a docuseries exploring Black food history in America. Food history scholar and cookbook author Caroline Randall Williams will host the four-episode series, as she travels across the country, exploring the “untold Black stories behind some of America’s classic and emblematic food and spirits.” The series will premiere in full on June 8. Variety

- Unhealthy turnover.  Pandemic burnout and disruptions to childcare access have had an outsized effect on health care workers with young children leaving their jobs, according to a recently published study from the Journal of the American Medicinal Association. Women working in health care who had children under the age of five were 43% more likely to experience job turnover than anyone else in the industry. JAMA

- Perfect 10. The NCAA women’s gymnastics national championship, aired on ABC over the weekend, drew in the largest college gymnastics audience on any network since the 2011 national championship. The championship was originally moved up to an earlier time to accommodate for ABC’s new afternoon NHL package, but despite the timeslot change, the former outdrew the latter by 29% in ratings, 15% in viewership, and among adults aged 18 to 49. Sports Media Watch


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"I know that hate will only win if people like me stand by and let it happen."

-Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMarrow, in a now-viral speech condemning her GOP colleague’s sexual grooming allegations against LGBTQ people. 

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