How Facebook’s PR Firm Brought Political Trickery to Tech

Posted November 21, 2018 8:56 p.m. EST

SAN FRANCISCO — When Tim Miller, a longtime Republican political operative, moved to the Bay Area last year to set up a public relations shop, he brought with him tradecraft more typical of Washington than Silicon Valley.

He was well versed in opposition research — the pursuit of damaging intelligence about a political enemy. He had ties to online media provocateurs. And, above all, he understood the value of secrecy.

Miller had arrived at the right moment with his company, Definers Public Affairs. With customers and lawmakers questioning the avowed good intentions and power of tech’s biggest companies, Facebook and others were on the defensive.

He quickly found plenty of business, from startups like Lyft, Lime and Juul to giants like Facebook and Qualcomm, the influential chip company that was in a nasty legal fight with Apple over royalties, according to five people with direct knowledge of Miller’s work who declined to be named because of confidentiality agreements.

While working for Qualcomm, Definers pushed the idea that Apple’s chief executive, Timothy Cook, was a viable presidential candidate in 2020, according to a former Definers employee and digital records. Presumably, it was an attempt to chill the cordial relations that Cook had cultivated with the Trump administration.

The campaign by Definers signaled an escalation of Silicon Valley’s already brass-knuckled approach to public relations.

“This type of dirty PR? It’s always been there, but it’s definitely on the upswing,” said Jonathan Hirshon, who was a public relations representative for technology companies for three decades, including Apple and Sony. “The idealism is still there, but the truth is, the big companies have become a lot more authoritarian in their approach to the media.”

Facebook fired Definers last week after The New York Times detailed the work Miller’s firm had done on behalf of the social media company. Definers encouraged reporters to write about the financial connections between anti-Facebook activists and liberal financier George Soros, drawing accusations that it was relying anti-Semitic tropes.

Definers’ strategy played to a target’s pressure points. Most of what Definers produced for Qualcomm had nothing to do with its beef with Apple, which was a complex legal fight over the royalties Apple should pay for the Qualcomm chips it was using in iPhones.

Definers employees distributed anti-Apple research to reporters and would not say who was paying for it. Definers distributed a 13-page memo titled “Apple Bowing to Chinese Cyber Regulators” that detailed how Apple’s activity in China contradicted its public stance on privacy elsewhere. It also planted dozens of negative articles about Apple on conservative news sites, according to a person familiar with the work and emails reviewed by The New York Times.

Qualcomm officials did not respond to requests for comment. The feuds among the tech industry’s giants have hardly been genteel over the years. Big companies often tip reporters to bad news about other companies and urge regulators to examine competitors.

A campaign by Microsoft, referred to as “Scroogled,” highlighted what it called Google’s privacy violations. From 2012 to 2014, it took out print and television ads that claimed Google was reading people’s emails, a charge the internet company denied.

Google has more recently been targeted with negative stories tipped to reporters by a group called the Campaign for Accountability. The group was quietly funded by the database maker Oracle, which has spent years in an intellectual property court fight with Google over Java, a programming tool owned by Oracle.

Matt Rhoades, Definers’ chief executive, said in a statement that the firm’s work “is absolutely no different than what public affairs firms do every day for their clients across industries and issues across the country. We are proud of the work we do for our clients.”

Juul, which has been accused of marketing its e-cigarettes to children, is working with Definers to improve its public image and communicate with reporters. It is unclear what the work is beyond that.

The ride-hailing company Lyft used Definers to help navigate regulatory challenges in statehouses across the country, including choosing which Lyft drivers to pitch to the media for interviews, according to a person familiar with the work.

And the scooter company Lime hired Definers in August because it wanted an outside contractor to take a more aggressive tack against rivals, according to a person familiar with that work. Lyft and Lime have since ended their work with Definers.

Some details of Definers’ relationships with tech firms, including Lyft and Lime, have previously been reported by other news organizations.

Definers also plied its services for Washington. It helped set up Power the Future, a pro-oil trade group, while it also worked for the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA ended its contract with Definers last year after it was revealed that a Definers lawyer was investigating agency employees critical of the Trump administration.

To promote clients and attack its clients’ enemies, Definers regularly used NTK Network, a news aggregator with a conservative slant and 122,000 followers on Facebook.

Definers and its sister firm, the political-opposition group America Rising, share some staff and one floor of an office building in Arlington, Virginia, with NTK. Joe Pounder, a veteran of Republican presidential campaigns who describes himself as “a master of opposition research” in his biographies, is listed as a co-founder of Definers and America Rising and editor-in-chief of NTK.

Pounder and two colleagues distanced NTK from Definers after The Times’ report last week. “We do not and did not work with Facebook. We share offices with a firm that does,” they wrote in a blog post.

But Miller promoted how Definers used NTK in a proposal sent to a potential Definers client last year, under a section labeled “Digital Platform Echo Chamber.”

“Definers manages NTK Network, a news aggregation platform that targets Washington D.C. influencers. Through NTK we can directly re-publish favorable news from other outlets, and work with like-minded individuals to help create an echo chamber effect,” he wrote in a copy of the proposal reviewed by The Times.

This year, NTK has published at least 57 articles criticizing Apple and Cook. Some of the posts needled Apple for issues at the center of the legal dispute between Apple and Qualcomm and repeated Qualcomm’s complaints. Apple had also started to move away from using Qualcomm chips.

“The iPhone 8 Might Be Slower Than the Competition. Here’s Why” read a headline on an April 2017 story. NTK’s answer? The iPhones don’t use Qualcomm chips.

Other stories were even more direct, like one from August about Qualcomm’s technology that concluded: “For Apple, the choice will be clear: make nice with Qualcomm, or offer a slower, inferior product to consumers.”

Pounder said in a statement Tuesday that NTK is regularly pitched by people in public relations and the media. “What NTK writes and posts on is what NTK chooses to write and post on,” he added.

Definers also used other outlets to disseminate its work. In July 2017, Miller wrote an article that accused Cook of lying to President Donald Trump about building Apple factories in the United States, according to an email reviewed by The Times. He emailed the piece to the right-wing provocateur Charles C. Johnson, according to the email, who published it on his website GotNews without a byline or other disclosures that it came from Miller, Definers or Qualcomm. Miller said in a text message to The Times that Definers pitched the angle to a range of news outlets. “Two years into the administration it’s clear we were right,” he added.

Johnson said he had a falling out with Miller because of Miller’s criticism of Trump.

Definers’ focus on Cook extended to a campaign it ran to promote the Apple chief as a 2020 presidential candidate. A slick website titled “Draft Tim Cook 2020” had digital links to Definers employees, said Kyle Ehmke, a cybersecurity researcher for the firm ThreatConnect.

In a memo made public by Facebook on Wednesday, Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s communications and policy chief, assumed responsibility for hiring Definers and said Facebook asked the PR firm to investigate whether Soros had “financial motivation” to criticize Facebook.

Schrage, a longtime confidant of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, had already announced plans to leave Facebook. Sandberg, who had previously said she did not know about Definers, admitted in an online comment attached to the memo that she had been informed about the company in emails and other materials.