SAN FRANCISCO -- In Silicon Valley, start-ups launch in beta all the time and work out the kinks as they go.
Apparently that approach doesn’t work as well in Washington.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s new political advocacy start-up hasn’t even launched yet and it’s already generating some controversy.
The group, which plans to push for comprehensive immigration reform, was supposed to launch Monday, but that was delayed after a memo containing controversial claims and language was leaked to Politico last week. The group now plans to launch later this week, a person familiar with the situation said.
In the leaked memo, Joe Green, who’s heading the political effort, pledged that technology executives would use their companies to “control the avenues of distribution” and promote their political message. Green could not be reached for comment.
Green said Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Silicon Valley investor Marc Andreessen had signed on as founding members (which Politico said they had yet to do). And Green also said the group would be called Human Capital, which apparently it won’t be.
Perhaps most damaging was a section of the prospectus called “our tactical assets,” which boasted that “people in tech” can become “one of the most powerful political forces” because of the control of “massive distribution channels,” being “broadly popular with Americans” and “we have individuals with a lot of money.”
Green apologized for the language in a statement to Politico.
“Several prominent leaders in the tech community, operating solely as individuals, continue to work on forming an issues advocacy organization that would seek to promote issues such as comprehensive immigration reform and education reform,” Green said. “However, some of the information contained in this email is outdated and not representative of the kind of work this organization will perform. Moreover, I regret some of the language in the email was poorly chosen and could give a misimpression of the views and aspirations of this organization and those associated with it.”
A person familiar with the situation said the memo obtained by Politico was an early draft meant to start the discussion with technology executives. All of the money is coming from individuals, the person said. Andreessen and Gates are expected to go ahead and participate in the group, said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she is not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Technology blog TechCrunch downplayed what is being widely viewed as a “PR misstep.” “Lobbies leverage a group’s reputation and resources to push political messages, almost by definition. Nor is using the tech community’s captive audience of billions of users particularly novel,” Gregory Ferenstein wrote.
Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, said the bad publicity would quickly fade if the group successfully gets off the ground.
“If they turn into a strong and influential organization, no one is going to remember the memo,” Schnur said. “Now all they have to do is turn into a strong and influential organization.”
The political advocacy group is raising tens of millions of dollars to push a tech-friendly agenda in Washington, starting with immigration reform and later moving on to education reform and scientific research. Among the prominent technology executives taking part in the group are Twitter and Square co-founder Jack Dorsey, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Dropbox co-founder Drew Houston, Zynga co-founder Mark Pincus and PayPal and Slide co-founder Max Levchin.
Crisis management specialist Eric Dezenhall recommends that the group no longer email its memos in Washington, where leaks are even more common than in Silicon Valley.
“The leaked memo used to just happen sometimes. Now it’s a virtual certainty that a memo is going to get leaked,” he said. “Nowadays you just hit send and off it goes.”
Zuckerberg can’t afford the fallout from leaked memos, Dezenhall said.
“I don’t think something like this is the death knell, but I think you have to be very careful when you are effectively a media company talking about using your resources to manipulate and effect public policy,” he said.
He added: “If an organization can’t discipline itself not to send strategy memos all over the place, it’s hard for it to discipline itself to effect the changes it is trying to effect.”