It's time for Whisper's CEO to do his damn job
It was Michael Heyward’s game to lose. The well-documented awfulness of Secret, and its suicide-happy founder David Byttow, had made Whisper by default the “less evil” secret-sharing app. A content partnership with Buzzfeed and another apparently in the offing with the Guardian, tens of millions in funding and a $200m valuation. All Heyward and his team had to do was not screw the pooch.
That was last week.
This week: Oh, the stories that bandy-legged pooch could tell.
You’ve read the Guardian’s reporting: Whisper staffers boasting that, amongst other misdeeds, they regularly stalked -- and tried to identify -- users based on their location, even when those users had opted out of location tracking.
The initial story was damning enough but Whisper's idiotic response has managed to turn a crisis into a potential extinction event.
Every popular app has a privacy scandal, of course. Most companies apologize, some choose to explain, and a few quietly update their terms of service, retrain staff and hope the storm passes. What almost none do is allow their editor in chief to publicly threaten journalists that they will “regret” reporting a well-sourced story that’s unequivocally in the public interest. Or accuse a Pulitzer prize-winning newspaper of fabricating sources and creating quotes out of whole cloth.
Then again, Whisper is unique amongst its peers in choosing to hire an editor in chief whose previous gig was resident “traffic whore” at Gawker, and whose boss publicly encouraged him to prioritize clicks over the truth. As of Friday evening, Neetzan Zimmerman, Whisper’s editor in chief, continues to loudly insist that the Guardian’s story is entirely false (“a pack of vicious lies”) even as evidence mounts to the contrary and more Whisper partners head out of the door. Meanwhile, CEO Heyward has remained resolutely silent -- a management strategy that’s as unfathomable as it is company-threateningly negligent.
We shouldn’t be fooled by Zimmerman’s job title into thinking that we're witnessing Heyward acting like a good media CEO standing quietly behind his top editor. For one thing, it’s arguable whether Whisper is a media company at all. But even if it were, this is not really an editorial scandal. It’s a product scandal. It’s a privacy scandal. It’s a management scandal. And it’s a media relations disaster. All of these areas are clearly the remit of the CEO. As such, Heyward’s responsibility here is clear: He needs to stop dicking around and take back control of his ship.
As Jay Rosen wrote, if Zimmerman’s claims about the Guardian fabricating its story are true then “he’s on to a newsroom scandal bigger than Jayson Blair.” In which case, it's Heyward’s voice that users need to hear making that claim, not that of a belligerent ex-Gawker staffer whose credibility has been fatally compromised from the start.
If, as seems infinitely more likely, the Guardian’s reporting is accurate and Zimmerman either knowingly misled Whisper’s users or didn’t bother to check his facts before threatening reporters then his position at the company is absolutely untenable. He needs to resign, or Heyward needs to fire him.
Right now, it’s still Heyward’s choice whether to take decisive action to reassure Whisper’s users that their privacy is respected, and will be respected even more in future. But with tens of millions of dollars of venture capital at stake, and a possible FTC investigation of the horizon, that choice won’t be his for long.
As Sarah Lacy noted in her reporting of Secret's bullying scandal, there comes a point at which, if a young CEO won’t act of his own volition, its the job of his investors to step in and speak truth to youth. In Whisper's case, that point is right now.
Update 5pm, October 18th: Michael Heyward finally responds (sort of): "Rather than further debate the Guardian’s methods or allegations, I’d like to reiterate our approach to protecting your privacy..."