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Why it matters that Google no longer has Eric Schmidt as the controversies pile up



Eric-Schmidt Chip Somodevilla / Getty

  • Since Eric Schmidt stepped down as
    executive chairman in December, Google has been without its
    most seasoned and effective spokesman.
  • When Schmidt was running Google, he reveled in the
  • None of Google’s current leaders seem interested or
    capable of taking over for Schmidt in that regard.
  • That’s too bad, because with Donald Trump and the far
    right bearing down, Google needs someone to make its

When Google’s business practices
came under scrutiny earlier this summer and members of the Senate
wanted to hear from one of the company’s top leaders, Google

The Senate Intelligence Committee
voiced its displeasure by placing a
name card bearing Google’s name
at the same table where
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg
testified, even though no one from Google showed up.

But back on Sept 21, 2011, at a
previous Congressional hearing, Google wasn’t satisfied to be
represented by an empty chair.

Instead, the company’s managers
dispatched Eric Schmidt to Capitol Hill. Lawmakers grilled
Schmidt, Google’s then executive chairman, about whether the
company was using its search engine to promote its own products
over rivals. Schmidt strode into the
hearing room that day grinning
. While he didn’t convince
every lawmaker that Google wasn’t “cooking” search results, the
pundits said he more than held his own.

“You had to know going into this
that Eric Schmidt was too smart and too practiced an operator to
let himself get cornered,” Charles Cooper, a
columnist with CBS Interactive
, wrote at the time. “Schmidt
didn’t come close to breaking a sweat.”

Larry Page

Compare that with how Google
responded to the Senate’s questions two weeks ago. Dorsey and
Sandberg appeared at the Sept. 5 hearing called by the Senate
Intelligence Committee, and answered queries about the role
social networks play in US elections.

CEO Sundar Pichai or Chairman Larry Page,
were no shows, and 

Google was
criticized from all sides
. The imagery of the empty chair
during the hearing was a constant reminder of the company’s
absence. Tom Wheeler, the former FCC chairman, summed it up this
way: Google’s decision not to appear was “a
strategic mistake of virtually incalculable

The stark differences in the two
responses to near-similar situations highlights the huge hole
that Google has yet to fill since Schmidt stepped down as
chairman in December. Schmidt, who was Google’s CEO from 2001 to
2011, was a leader who thrived in the spotlight, and reveled as
Google’s point man anytime the company drew fire.

He was equal parts salesman,
statesman, and technologist.

And now, more than ever, Google
is missing that kind of frontman, someone in authority who can
stand before the cameras during a crisis, and effectively make
the company’s case.

Google misses Schmidt,
historically its best spokesman

The President of the United
States and his allies have targeted Google.

Without providing much proof,
Donald Trump has accused Google’s leaders of
“rigging” its search platform
to muffle the voices of
political conservatives and to deliver only bad news about his

More recently, the far right has
claimed that a recent series of rather
banal news leaks
at Google supports their claim that the
company is using its influence to wage war on Republicans. Google
has continually denied these allegations, but the controversies
keep cropping up.

On Thursday evening,
The Wall Street Journal reported
that it had seen an email
exchange from last year between Google employees in which they
discussed potential ways to tweak Google’s search results to help
those protesting Trump’s travel ban on people from Muslim

Google said the email chain only
contained proposals, and that they were never implemented,
reiterating that the company does not bias Google search for
political reasons.  

Sundar Pichai
CEO Sundar Pichai speaks with reporters at the 2018 I/O

Greg Sandoval/Business

At this rate, one has to wonder
how long before lawmakers 


 Google to testify.

In the three years since being
named CEO, Pichai has proven himself capable enough of addressing
Google I/O developer conferences
, speaking to friendly crowds
with the aid of teleprompters and rehearsals.

It remains to be seen, however,
whether he’s as effective a spokesman when faced with a hostile
audience in impromptu situations that are high stakes.

“Unlike the CEOs of the other
large tech companies, Pichai has kept a much lower profile,” said
Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern’s
Kellogg School of Management. “Most people know the CEOs of the
other big companies, but I’m not sure anyone knows Pichai. I
think it’s important for an individual to become the recognizable
leader of a company. It puts a human face on what would otherwise
be faceless.”

As for the company’s other top
leaders, Page and Google co-founder Sergey Brin, neither has
shown much interest of late in
addressing the public
on Google’s

which should
leave Google pining for Schmidt — and not just for his
communication skills.

In 2007, Schmidt was
interviewed on stage
at the annual National Association of
Broadcasters conference. At the time, Google was attempting to
acquire DoubleClick, the web-ad services company.

The interviewer noted that
Microsoft had complained loudly to US regulators that the deal
would kill competition and that they should fear Google’s growing

“Microsoft?” Schmidt

With one word, expressed with
faux surprise, Schmidt instantly cast doubt on Google’s accuser.
A decade before, the US government had famously brought a massive
antitrust case against Microsoft. To much of the public,
Microsoft was still the symbol of anti-competitive

The audience laughed and
applauded. Just off stage, the faces of Schmidt’s assistants lit

Schmidt’s swagger, quick wit,
and sense of theater are
character traits that can inspire employees, as well as win over
the public. Sometimes, those are the kinds of traits that can
even help sway skeptical lawmakers.

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