Zuckerberg's $100M Donation: Good PR or Just Generosity?

Facebook founder donates $100M to Newark schools ahead of controversial movie.

September 23, 2010, 10:56 AM

Sept. 23, 2010— -- Whatever the intention, $100 million is a lot of money.

But as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg prepares to announce a $100 million charitable donation to Newark, N.J., public schools, some wonder, why now?

News broke Wednesday that Zuckerberg, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are expected to announce the philanthropic effort -- believed to be Zuckerberg's largest-ever public charitable donation -- on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" Friday.

But the timing of Zuckerberg's announcement has led some to speculate whether the donation could be part of an effort to help bolster the young CEO's public profile, as well as the image of a company that's weathered a few PR storms over the past couple of years.

The Oprah-worthy announcement comes just one week before the release of "The Social Network," a Hollywood movie expected to depict Zuckerberg as a socially-awkward genius hungry for power and prestige.

And media outlets reported the donation on the same day that Forbes released its annual list of the 400 richest Americans. The 26-year-old Zuckerberg, with a reported net worth of $6.7 billion, ranked 35th on the Forbes list, ahead of even Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

In a blog post Thursday, Dan Bigman, executive editor for business news at Forbes, said the timing of the announcement is "curious," especially given that Facebook is facing some very high stakes.

The company's reach -- and its CEO's wealth -- may be growing steadily, but so are concerns by regulators and activists about personal data and privacy.

"Coupled with some high-profile PR flubs in recent years, Zuckerberg's public profile could use some burnishing," he said. "A recent de rigeur profile in The New Yorker was supposed to help, but it simply reinforced the perception of Zuckerberg as a socially awkward, insatiably driven young man with questionable maturity and increasing power."

Early reports indicate that the Aaron Sorkin-penned movie, "The Social Network," will only further tarnish his image.The film, based on Ben Mezrich's steamy book, "The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal," relies heavily on accounts from one source -- Zuckerberg's estranged co-founder Eduardo Saverin.

Facebook declined to participate in the creation of the movie, and in an interview with ABC News' Diane Sawyer, Zuckerberg called the movie "fiction."

But for the average theater-goer it may be the only window into the massively powerful company. And if it is, they might not like the view.

Facebook'z Zuckerberg Tells ABC News 'The Social Network' Is 'Fiction'

When contacted by ABCNews.com, Facebook declined to comment on the expected announcement or Zuckerberg's previous charitable donations.

But in a blog post exploring the timing of Zuckerberg's $100 million gift, Kara Swisher of the Wall Street Journal's All Things Digital said sources told her the timing was actually debated within the company, as some at Facebook worried it would look too much like a calculated effort to counter damaging press.

"In fact, said sources, Zuckerberg actually has been cooking up the deal since he and high-profile Newark Mayor Cory Booker started kibitzing over the idea while both attended the Allen & Co. conference in July," Swisher wrote.

She also reported that Zuckerberg's interest in the field may have started with his longtime girlfriend, Priscilla Chan, who is now a medical student but started out as a teacher after college.

Still, some say it's hard to withhold suspicion.

"You can't help but be skeptical of the timing," said Adam Ostrow, editor-in-chief of the social media blog Mashable. "Making a huge donation on the eve of the movie coming out, you'd have to think that Facebook was trying in some way to change the public's perception of Zuckerberg. For many people, especially those not in the tech community who are familiar with the Facebook back story and the controversy of how it started, 'The Social Network' movie is going to be their first exposure to the back story of Facebook and its beginning."

And Hollywood's overly-dramatic treatment of the tale will likely not paint Zuckerberg in the most positive light, he said.

But despite the timing, the gift may still be a good fit for Facebook.

"That being said, it is a generous gift and the cause he picked makes sense," he said. "When you think about empowering young people with technology, I think this makes a lot of sense in terms of giving back to the community that Facebook ultimately serves and it will continue to serve as people get online for the first time."

And public relations experts say that shoring up public support before taking a potential PR hit is a smart strategy.

"Certainly, the larger your goodwill reservoir, the more you can withstand crisis," said Michael Cherenson, executive vice president of public relations for the Success Communications Group.

He said the contribution could be part of an effort to show Zuckerberg as a business thought leader who gives back and not just a computer geek. Choosing education as his cause is also a wise choice, given Facebook's younger demographic and concerns about cyber-bullying and online privacy, he said.

"I think it seems like [they're taking] a pro-active approach on building a goodwill reservoir and credibility bank to take him to the next level in terms of reputation," he said.