Mark Zuckerberg’s Mission: Stay Cool in a Very Hot Seat

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The sessions are likely to be among the most contentious congressional grillings of a CEO in a decade.

The hearings “will be very, very long. Some people will spend their time attacking him as viciously as they can,” said

Donald Graham,

former CEO of Washington Post Co. and a former Facebook director. Still, Mr. Graham said, “Mark will do fine. He is patient.”

In many ways, Mr. Zuckerberg, who wasn’t made available for an interview, will be pushed outside his comfort zone. He rarely strays beyond scripted public appearances and frequently gets defensive when the company is criticized—for example, initially calling the notion “crazy” that “fake news” on Facebook influenced the 2016 presidential election. Although a high-profile figure who garners constant media attention, he has for years allowed Chief Operating Officer

Sheryl Sandberg

to do most of the public speaking for the company.

As his appearance before Congress looked increasingly unavoidable, Mr. Zuckerberg began working to shape his message and delivery. He has expressed contrition in several major interviews and held an impromptu news conference in which he said it was a “huge mistake” that he hadn’t done more to prevent abuse of user data earlier.

Among the advisers and consultants working to prepare Mr. Zuckerberg this past weekend was a team from the WilmerHale law firm, whose practices include data security, cybersecurity and privacy law, among other things.

Facebook is under fire for a range of perceived offenses, including helping to spread disinformation and allowing research firm Cambridge Analytica to access information from tens of millions of user profiles in an effort to sway the election in

Donald Trump’s

favor. Among other things, legislators will likely probe whether Facebook violated a consent order with the Federal Trade Commission requiring the company to safeguard user data.

Mr. Zuckerberg, 33 years old, has long disproved his critics. When Facebook prepared to go public in 2012, some investors argued the Harvard dropout wasn’t mature enough to run a publicly traded business. He has since built it into a more than $450 billion-a-year company, become a billionaire many times over and drawn frequent praise from Wall Street.

He also has constantly strived for self-improvement. He learned Mandarin and last year took a listening tour of the country to try to better understand how Americans live and think about the future.

Mr. Zuckerberg’s stated goal this year: “Fix Facebook.” His performance this week will go a long way toward deciding whether he can do that.

Mr. Zuckerberg isn’t regularly questioned by people who don’t have a sophisticated understanding of Facebook or technology in general. “Mark doesn’t have to deal with those kinds of people very often,” one former employee says, and “he can get really frustrated”—especially when they are critical of his company.

During a 2010 interview on the stage of a Wall Street Journal conference, when he was being questioned about Facebook’s privacy settings, Mr. Zuckerberg began sweating so much the perspiration poured down his face and dripped off his chin. He had to reluctantly remove his trademark hoodie.

Mr. Zuckerberg also took umbrage last week when his Silicon Valley rival, Apple Inc. CEO

Tim Cook,

was critical of Facebook’s privacy practices. Mr. Zuckerberg said in a Vox interview that “it’s important that we don’t all get Stockholm syndrome and let the companies that work hard to charge you more convince you that they actually care more about you. Because that sounds ridiculous to me.”

Mr. Zuckerberg often describes Facebook as an “optimistic” company, and that its main goal was not to make a profit but to connect more people. It was so focused on those positive goals in its first decade, he told Vox, that “frankly we didn’t spend enough time investing in or thinking through some of the downside uses of the tools.”

That explanation might get tough scrutiny from legislators, who will want to know whether that push for growth—which made Mr. Zuckerberg fans on Wall Street—caused the company to cut corners on privacy. “If they made a huge mistake, why didn’t they fix it?” asked David Kirkpatrick, head of New York-based Techonomy Media and author of “The Facebook Effect.” “They were optimizing for profits instead.”

Facebook is furiously proposing changes in advance of the congressional hearings, including revisions to its data policy and terms of service, banning more Russian trolls from the site and requiring that advertisers wanting to spotlight hot-button political issues to get authorized first.

“The time is long past for, ‘I’m sorry, we made mistakes,’ ” said

Jim Steyer,

CEO of Common Sense Media, which advocates for safe media for children and has been briefing lawmakers about why it believes Facebook should be more closely regulated. “That ship should’ve sailed years ago.”

While Mr. Zuckerberg has said he is open to some forms of regulation, tight restrictions have the potential to drag on revenue and raise costs. But improved controls could also help the company retain users and address concerns many people have about online privacy.

Mr. Zuckerberg “is taking these hearings very seriously,” says

Chris Cox,

vice president of product at Facebook. “The criticism and questions being asked are really important for Facebook and the internet more broadly and the chance to have this discussion out in public is a good thing.”

Write to Betsy Morris at betsy.morris@wsj.com

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