What might Nick Clegg bring to Facebook?

Vijay Solanki processes the news that ex-UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg is to be Facebook's new global comms lead

With the state of the world today, it’s easy to think there is no news you can wake up to which surprises you. But the announcement on Sunday that former UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg is set to lead Facebook’s communications globally made me stop and say ‘huh?’

I know I’m not the only one to be surprised by this announcement, but my surprise came from the fact I know Nick (a little). But when I started pairing that with my knowledge of the policies and politics emerging around technology and, of course, the digital marketing space, it started to add up.

A new chapter…

Posted by Nick Clegg on Friday, 19 October 2018

Here’s why.

Firstly, a quick history of the UK Liberal Democrats, formed in 1988 from a merger of the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party. In modern British politics they achieved power broker status in the 2010 general election.

Nick Clegg was leader of the party going into that election and achieved status in the first UK TV election debates when the phrase “I agree with Nick” put Clegg and the Lib Dems on par with both the Labour and Conservative parties.

After the 2010 general election, David Cameron’s Conservative Party formed a coalition government with the Lib Dems which put Nick Clegg in as deputy prime minister. It was the first time the Lib Dems held ministerial positions.

I first met Nick Clegg when I was part of a communications team of active marketers, researchers and PR/PA professionals brought together to do some work for the Liberal Democrats back in the 1990s.

We were exploring a number of strategy and communications options for the party, and Nick was shadow home secretary at the time. What struck me was that he was straight-talking and not very politician-like.

Over the last 12 months, having stepped down from mainstream policies, I have to say I was surprised to see his interest in technology. I distinctly remember nudging friends who have worked closely with Nick to ask why he was talking about Facebook.

A 2017 interview with Nick in Wired magazine had the headline Brexit is bad, but AI could be good. Last year, he also set up a think-tank called Open Reason ‘to develop and promote liberal ideas and causes’.

Over the last 12-18 months, he seems to have got into making sense of the relationship between technology and politics. He delivered his first post-big office speech at the adtech conference last November – not something you see an average former deputy prime minister front up to. His speech was entitled “Artificial intelligence is an opportunity, not a threat”.

But Nick has never worked in a global technology business. I’m trying to picture him turning up to Menlo Park every morning. I don’t see him on a skateboard – that said he does like bikes given his early Dutch upbringing. He will have an enormous learning curve. I wonder if he will take a leaf out of former Facebook ANZ MD Stephen Scheeler and start an ‘ignorance tour’. Nick will certainly start at the older end of the employee base at Facebook HQ.

Then there’s working for Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. That is much harder to call. Facebook has learnt a lot from stepping into congress in Brussels, Canberra – in fact, every key government around the world. That said, Facebook leadership has been accused of not really understanding government. The US congress moment in April was a change catalyst Zuckerberg.

There is clearly a huge disconnect between the speed of modern technology companies driving bleeding edge innovation alongside the typically slow policy evolution of government policy and process. Policy development itself could be in for disruption and digital transformation. Don’t laugh, but a Facebook for government might help both groups build the best ground rules.

I’m interested in the space between policy and technology – GDPR, data privacy, news authenticity and so on. That’s Facebook’s big challenge and I think that’s where Nick needs to make the biggest difference: actually using policy to inform the technology.

So will Nick be able to impact the culture at Facebook and help the organisation make better connections (pun intended) with governments around the world? Is this a digital UN role in the making?

This could be society changing. Time will tell. I’ll certainly start looking for evidence on Facebook itself some months from now.

Vijay Solanki has spent 25 years working in marketing, innovation and digital.



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