Facebook’s Top PR Exec Is Leaving the Toughest Job in Tech

Caryn Marooney is the latest in a series of high-profile departures from Facebook’s communications department at a time when the company is perpetually under siege.

Following more than two years of constant turbulence for Facebook, the company’s vice president of communications, Caryn Marooney, is leaving the company, Facebook has confirmed. Marooney, who previously cofounded the technology communications firm The Outcast Agency, joined Facebook in 2011 as director of technology communications, after representing the company at Outcast. Most recently, she has been responsible for all global communications. Marooney’s final day is not yet set, but spokesperson Vanessa Chan said she would be staying on to bring her replacement on board.

“She’s been at Facebook for eight years on the payroll,” and worked with the company even before that at Outcast, Chan said. “It’s been a really, really long time. I think she just wants to take a step back.” In 2016, Marooney became head of global communications, a position, she told WIRED, that she accepted while battling cancer. Facebook is now looking internally and externally for her replacement.

Marooney’s departure is just the latest in a string of shakeups at Facebook’s communications department over the past year. In early 2018, the entire company underwent a major executive reorganization. As part of the changes, Marooney began splitting her duties with Rachel Whetsone, who had been hired away from Uber by Facebook the year before. In June, vice president of communications and public policy, Elliot Schrage, announced that he was stepping down from Facebook after a decade there, although he has not departed. Sir Nick Clegg, former deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom, was later hired to lead Facebook’s global policy and communications. Whetstone announced she was leaving for a top job at Netflix in August. At that point, Marooney reassumed responsibility for all global communications, and was reporting to Clegg when she announced her departure Wednesday.

“I’ve decided it’s time to get back to my roots: going deep in tech and product,” Marooney wrote in a Facebook post Wednesday. “With Nick Clegg settled in at Facebook, this felt like the right time to start the transition.”

Chan also confirmed that Debbie Frost, Facebook’s vice president of international policy and communications and the longest tenured employee on Facebook’s communications team, has also announced her exit.1 According to Chan, Frost is retiring. Meanwhile, the company recently hired Sarah O’Brien, formerly of Tesla, to be the company’s vice president of executive communications.

The staffing shuffle underscores the sheer difficulty of defending Facebook’s reputation at a time when it is perpetually under siege. Since 2016, the company has faced a barrage of questions about the rise of fake news, the spread of foreign propaganda, a massive security breach, violations of user privacy, violent conflict fueled by social media myths overseas, and an ever-expanding list of scandals. As one former Facebook employee put it to WIRED, Facebook’s public relations department has become a “crisis communications” shop.

“I think that some folks left just because they got tired of the day-in-day-out criticism, not just media but also from people in Washington,” the former employee said of the recent turnover at Facebook.

Members of Facebook’s PR team have bore the brunt of some of Facebook’s most recent scandals. It was Schrage, for instance, who took the public blame for hiring Definers Public Relations, which conducted opposition research on Facebook’s biggest critics, including billionaire Democratic donor George Soros. It was only after Schrage published a blog post on the subject that Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg acknowledged she, too, had been aware of Definers’ work.

During this tough time, Facebook also went on a hiring spree, growing from 17,048 employees by the end of 2016 to 35,587 employees at the end of 2018. Much of that increase went toward beefing up Facebook’s safety and security teams, and yet, according to the former employee, the dramatic increase led to “growing pains” across the company. “There would be internal tension over who gets to do what. That was tough to deal with,” the employee says.

“There were definitely executive camps, and this isn’t just comms, this is throughout the entire company,” another source familiar with Facebook’s communications team says. But the source noted that Marooney “did a good job keeping herself out of it.”

It’s still unclear which brave soul will take on the job next. Whoever it is will have their work cut out for them, with a Federal Trade Commission investigation into Facebook’s privacy practices hanging over the company’s head, plans for federal privacy legislation taking shape on Capitol Hill, and a battery of ongoing investigations happening overseas. That’s in addition to the near weekly news stories about how Facebook is prying into people’s private messages for market research or its history of bilking money from unsuspecting children playing games on the platform. The job Marooney is leaving behind just may be the hardest job in tech.

1 CORRECTION on 2/6/2019, 1:24 pm ET: This story has been updated to correct Debbie Frost’s title at Facebook. It has also been updated to include a quote from Caryn Marooney’s Facebook post about her departure from the company.


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