The Mark Zuckerberg-'Social Network' PR battle

Inside the Facebook founder's fight against controversial film

Who is winning the Mark Zuckerberg PR battle?

As Sony's "The Social Network," the unauthorized story of Zuckerberg and the origins of Facebook, hits theaters Friday, the answer might be both the studio and the press-shy billionaire.

Months before the film began screening, speculation was rampant in Hollywood and Silicon Valley about how Facebook and its founder would fight back against a heavily marketed film based on a controversial book that paints him in an unflattering light.

Zuckerberg chose not to hire a crisis PR team, instead employing a counterstrategy created by his company's internal corporate communications group and Outcast, its usual PR agency.

A decision was made that Zuckerberg, fearful of how his reaction might further fuel interest in the movie, would not publicly slam the film. Instead, Facebook put forward friends like Chris Hughes, a company co-founder who left in 2007 to join the Obama presidential campaign, to challenge the depiction of Zuckerberg in an August story in the New York Times.

But that article, in which "Social Network" producer Scott Rudin said that Facebook had tried unsuccessfully to convince him to change certain things in the film, set off a flurry of media attention ahead of its New York Film Festival premiere Sept. 24.

Zuckerberg declined to cooperate with the steady stream of media requests that followed. Instead, his team aggressively sought a "prestige" venue for the 26-year-old billionaire to tell his story. They reached out to the New Yorker magazine and writer Jose Antonio Vargas for a mostly flattering profile that ran Sept. 20.

"The most important thing was to make sure people had a fuller portrait of Mark," said Larry Yu, Facebook director of corporate communications. "That was the point of the New Yorker profile."

When pressed about the movie at public functions, Zuckerberg has playfully dismissed it as "fiction." But he has been careful not to seem too peeved by it or to attack director David Fincher or screenwriter Aaron Sorkin; Zuckerberg even cited Sorkin's "The West Wing" TV series as one of his favorites.

"The second thing was to make sure people know we think it's fiction," Yu said. "Whenever Mark is asked about it, he makes sure to say that."

Because the movie only now is being seen by the public, any impact of "Social Network" on Zuckerberg or Facebook might not be known for months. But several crisis PR specialists said they thought Zuckerberg has weathered the heavy media storm relatively well.

"In the sphere of influencers and opinion leaders, they've done a terrific job of getting it out there that the Mark Zuckerberg in the movie is not the real Mark Zuckerberg," said Allan Mayer, a publicity strategist at 42 West who has worked on several fact-based films including Oscar winners "A Beautiful Mind" and "Erin Brockovich." (42 West is handling aspects of the "Social Network" awards campaign, but Mayer is not involved.)

"Quite often, people will put together these legal-style briefs saying what's real and what's wrong," he added. "Facebook didn't do that. They were smart enough to know that that didn't matter. They just said the story in the movie isn't the real story. When you're in one of those battles for perception, all that matters is the net positive."

On the other hand, Fincher and especially Sorkin have made the media rounds expressing empathy for Zuckerberg while arguing that the film presents multiple perspectives based on competing depositions.

"I don't want to be unfair to this young man whom I don't know, who's never done anything to me, who doesn't deserve a punch in the face," Sorkin said in one of several interviews. "I honestly believe that I have not done that."

Zuckerberg's positioning took a bit of a hit when he appeared on Oprah Winfrey's show Sept. 24 -- the day of the "Social Network" premiere and a week before it was scheduled to open -- to reveal a $100 million charitable gift for New Jersey schools.

The appearance was criticized as a calculated move to counter the movie, even as Facebook insisted that the timing owed only to Winfrey's production schedule and the availability of the other guests on that show. Zuckerberg had even thought about making the donation anonymously until Winfrey herself convinced him to go public, according to insiders.

Still, the appearance caused more than a few eyes to roll.

"If that was a coincidence, it was an extremely fortuitous one," another PR veteran snarked.

Zuckerberg hasn't been alone in taking publicity actions against "Social Network."

The normally reclusive Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook who is played in the film as a suave, duplicitous villain by Justin Timberlake, has refused media requests but cooperated with a profile in the October issue of Vanity Fair, a decision the magazine called "unprecedented" and "rather out of character."

The Winkelvoss twins, depicted in the film by Armie Hammer, also have weighed in on the film in several interviews.

As the well-reviewed film plays into awards season, the battle over what's real and fiction could escalate. Films as varied as "Beautiful Mind" and "The Hurricane" were assailed for taking liberties with facts in efforts to woo awards votes.

"But getting those attacks out there now is good for the movie because it becomes old news," Mayer said. "This might be one of those extremely rare situations where it's a win-win for everyone."