PR Experts Debate Mark Zuckerberg's $100 Million Gift to Newark Schools

Mark Zuckerberg's $100 Million Gift
Mark Zuckerberg's $100 Million Gift

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million donation to Newark's public school system has drawn praise -- but also questions about its timing: He'll announce the gift on Oprah tomorrow, the same day as the premiere of a new film that critics say portrays the 26-year-old billionaire in a negative light.

DailyFinance reached out to a couple of branding experts to get their take on whether the timing of Zuckerberg's epic gift is just a coincidence -- and what it means for his image.

"This goes back to the early 1900s," says brand expert Rob Frankel. "John D. Rockefeller's PR company used to get photo ops of him giving dimes to orphans. Was it a coincidence when Rockefeller (pictured below) did it? Please. This is so blatant and so transparent it's pathetic."

Facebook declined to comment.

The Next Bill Gates?

Frankel said Zuckerberg may aspire to become this generation's Bill Gates, whom he is known to respect and admire. But there's a difference between the founder of Microsoft (MSFT) and the founder of Facebook according to Frankel.

"While Bill Gates could be domineering and ruthless, he was never petulant, he was never a child, and Zuckerberg clearly is a childish, immature kid who was given way too much control and power at way too early an age. Maybe when he's in his forties, he might temper some of his success with wisdom."

Laura Ries, president of Ries & Ries, a marketing strategy firm in Atlanta, also noted the timing of Zuckerberg's gift, but was more sympathetic to the young CEO.

"Nothing is ever a coincidence!" Ries said by email. "But what could be so bad in the movie? Did he torture cats? He is a nerd that made a TON of money. Why be embarrassed by that! Facebook is free for the people and we all use it and LOVE it! I don't see any downside of that."

"As far as I know he isn't blowing his money on cocaine and hookers," Ries added. "So what if they make a movie?"

"Like It or Not, He Is a Celebrity"

But Zuckerberg, who has reportedly seen the movie despite saying he had no plans to, has made it clear that it he thinks the film is fiction. And at AllThingsD this year, he told Kara Swisher: "I wish that no one made a movie about me when I was alive." Critics who've seen the film (I haven't) say it portrays Zuckerberg in a negative light.

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Ries said Zuckerberg, as the billionaire CEO of one of the world's biggest websites, should accept his role as a public figure.

"Like it or not, he is a celebrity," Ries said. "He has to deal with interest in him. Certainly it is great to give away money. Just ask Bill Gates. Newark is a surprise since he didn't grow up there and has no connection. The best way to give money is when you have a personal connection or passion. Then you have a story to tell. What is he going to say on Oprah?"

Keeping the Focus on Newark

"From a brand image standpoint, this is phenomenal for both Zuckerberg and Corey Booker," said John Barker, president of Manhattan-based advertising and branding agency Barker/DZP and a resident of nearby Westfield, N.J. "And the generosity of the gift is astonishing. But the timing is suspect, given the upcoming movie plus Zuckerberg's lack of any connection to the city."

"And ironically, Newark already spends 42% more per student than the New Jersey average -- over $4000 per student more than districts like Millburn and Tenafly, which are the best in the state," Barker said. "For those of us who live in New Jersey and applaud what Booker is doing, that money might be much better spent creating an entrepreneurial enterprise zone around the fabulous new Prudential Center."

"Throwing money at the schools hasn't worked yet, but rebuilding the economy of the city would mean lasting change," Barker said.