Meta Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg is now facing "internal scrutiny" at the company after pressuring U.K. tabloid the Daily Mail to kill a story about her former boyfriend, Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick.
The revelations come in an explosive new report from the Wall Street Journal detailing a coordinated campaign to discourage the tabloid from publishing the story, pulling resources from both Activision Blizzard and Meta.
Sandberg dated Kotick, now accused of facilitating a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination at his company, from 2016 to 2019. In spite of denying that he had knowledge of disturbing allegations of employee misconduct, including alleged rape, Kotick apparently knew about many of those incidents — a fact he concealed from the company's board.
The Wall Street Journal report details how Sandberg contacted the Daily Mail's digital division in 2016 and again in 2019 as the tabloid was working to reveal a temporary restraining order against Kotick that a former girlfriend put in place in 2014. Sandberg and Kotick reportedly "developed a strategy to persuade the Daily Mail not to report on the restraining order," working in tandem with employees from their respective companies.
In both instances, Sandberg reportedly told the tabloid that Kotick's former girlfriend since retracted the allegations of harassment that prompted her to file for a restraining order.
According to The WSJ report, Meta is now reviewing its COO's involvement in trying to kill the story about her then-boyfriend. When TechCrunch asked if Sandberg would have violated company policy by leveraging internal PR resources for a personal dispute, Meta declined to answer.
"Sheryl Sandberg never threatened the MailOnline’s business relationship with Facebook in order to influence an editorial decision," Meta Executive Communications spokesperson Mao-Lin Shen said in a statement emailed to TechCrunch. "This story attempts to make connections that don’t exist."
For a company weary from an unrelenting series of scandals, revelations about Sandberg's meddling in her ex-boyfriend's PR crisis are just another headache. It's not clear how seriously Meta is scrutinizing her behavior — or if the broader leadership team was even aware of it, though The WSJ does indicate her actions are under "review" for potentially breaking company rules.
After years of tension and high stakes policy-setting during the Trump years, Sandberg is reportedly no longer as close with Meta CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg as she once was. It's possible that the Kotick situation will be viewed as yet another misstep in which Sandberg makes headlines for the wrong reasons. Internally, Sandberg is known for deploying Meta's PR resources in defense of her personal brand, though the degree to which Meta's COO was working in lockstep with the rest of company leadership around the Kotick situation isn't yet known.
Kotick hangs on by a thread
In a statement to TechCrunch, Activision Blizzard's board of directors stated that Kotick informed the senior independent director of the board about the "incident" in 2014 and later notified the full board. After an investigation through law firm Skadden Arps, the board determined that there was "no merit to the allegations."
An Activision Blizzard spokesperson referred TechCrunch to Elizabeth McCloskey with the law firm Keker, Van Nest & Peters, who provided a statement from Kotick's former girlfriend, who the firm declined to name, walking back her former allegations against Kotick.
" … In 2014, I signed a sworn statement making clear that what I had said was untrue," according to the statement from Kotick's former girlfriend provided through the law firm. In the statement, she also accused The WSJ of "exploiting" her in order to publish an unflattering story on Kotick.
Activision Blizzard employees staged a walkout and circulated a petition to call for Kotick's resignation in November in light of his involvement in the ongoing culture crisis at the company. Kotick has hung on as CEO so far, but reports suggest he won't retain the position on the other side of Microsoft's planned $69 billion acquisition of the company.
Activision Blizzard also named two new women to its board Thursday, though the company told TechCrunch that the timing of this announcement is not connected to new revelations around Kotick. Those board additions are Substack Communications VP Lulu Cheng Meservey, formerly of TrailRunner, and Kerry Carr, an SVP from Bacardi.
The pair of new board members will replace two men who are stepping down from the board. As Bloomberg observed, the additions will bring Activision Blizzard's board into compliance with California law that mandates a public company's board with six or more directors must include at least three women or face steep fines.
Kotick himself will soon be leaving Coca-Cola's board, where he's served in a well-compensated role for a decade. The company faced pressure from some investors to remove Kotick in light of the unfolding scandal around company culture at Activision Blizzard, though the gaming executive says he will step down to focus on steering his company through its acquisition by Microsoft.
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