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Campaign to halt negative story on Bobby Kotick allegedly involved Activision Blizzard staff

Activision Blizzard employees might have been tasked with helping squash an outlet's reporting on a restraining order filed against CEO Bobby Kotick by an ex-girlfriend.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

April 21, 2022

4 Min Read
The logo for Activision Blizzard

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Meta (née Facebook) chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg allegedly pressured U.K. news outlet The Daily Mail to not publish reporting about a restraining order filed against Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick by an ex-girlfriend.

Why was Sandberg jumping into reporting about Kotick in the first place? According to the Journal, it's because the pair dated from 2016 to 2019, and concerns apparently arose that such a story could damage Sandberg's reputation as an advocate for women in the workplace. In those respective years, Sandberg allegedly contacted the Mail through different representatives to request it cease two separate attempts to publish this report on Kotick.

This specific story takes a number of bizarre turns, indicating that both Sandberg and Kotick may have used company resources in their bid to stop the story from going live. The Journal reports that "a team that included Facebook and Activision employees as well as paid outside advisers" were part of this effort, and that Kotick helped strategize this process with Sandberg.

The story of Kotick's ex-girlfriend filing a restraining order is a strange one. She initially filed the order in 2014 after calling the police on Kotick for "trying to get into her home." The temporary order was rescinded at the request of both parties on April 17, 2014. This had followed the ex-girlfriend breaking up with Kotick for his "bullying and controlling nature."

Details about this restraining order do need to be taken with a grain of salt. Sources speaking to The Wall Street Journal said that Kotick's ex-girlfriend would later tell friends that some of her allegations against him were "either exaggerated or untrue." Kotick told The Journal that the conflict between them has been resolved and that the two remain friends to this day.

In an instance where the cover-up may have been worse than the crime, Sandberg and Kotick's efforts to ensure this tale never saw the light of day may have left egg on the face of both their companies. Kotick allegedly told one of The Journal's sources that Sandberg "threatened the Mail" by saying their article could "damage its relationship with Facebook." Kotick directly denied ever saying such a statement in a comment to the Journal.

The Daily Mail, like many news outlets, relies on Facebook's News Feed algorithm to ensure its articles reach as wide an audience as possible. That said, sources who spoke to The Wall Street Journal said that Mail employees who interacted with Sandberg "did not feel threatened" by her comments.

The fact that employees from both companies may have been tasked with untangling this personal mess for Kotick is an especially bad look for both executives. The Wall Street Journal noted an even more unusual fact about the pairs' relationship: they apparently would regularly consult with each others' employees for public relations advice.

In 2016, Kotick apparently copied one of Sandberg's employees at Facebook on a press inquiry from The Wall Street Journal. The Journal was aware of this fact because he "inadvertently" copied its reporter on the e-mail as well.

What began as a personal conflict between Kotick and an ex-girlfriend has now spiraled outward into the use of company resources at these billion-dollar firms, as well as questions of undue influence in using Facebook's traffic power to kill a story at a news outlet. 

While Sandberg's actions fall mostly outside of the world of video games, Kotick allegedly involving his staff in this complicated web of personal PR management casts yet another glaring light on his leadership of Activision Blizzard. He already bears the weight of multiple lawsuits alleging that the company fostered a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination. 

Last year, he was also directly implicated in that culture with allegations that he had threatened to kill one of his assistants, and that he'd prevented the company's HR division from firing Treyarch co-founder Dan Bunting for allegedly sexually harassing an employee. 

The revelation that he might have used company resources to help kill a damning story about his personal life adds weight to employee demands that he exit the company. Reports had swirled previously that he was planning an exit after Microsoft's $68.7 billion acquisition of the company was completed, but now Activision Blizzard says no such discussions have taken place.

Activision Blizzard's board previously backed Kotick after accusations about his conduct at the company came to light. It will be interesting to see if the board makes a similar statement in light of this news. 

Sandberg is not the first non-video-game-industry public figure to be suddenly roped into Activision Blizzard's legal and cultural woes. Last week, California governor Gavin Newsom was accused of inappropriately interfering with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing's lawsuit against Activision Blizzard.

Meta and Activision Blizzard did not respond to requests for comment at the time of this story's publishing. We will update our story with their responses once they arrive.

About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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