Bill Gates is the tech world’s original enfant terrible, a Harvard dropout whose obsessive focus and vision built Microsoft. He is the role model for the tech entrepreneurs of today, with their unshakeable faith in the power of technology to make everything better, for everyone, everywhere.
But Gates, the richest man in the world, sees a bigger picture now. His foundation spends or gives away $4 billion a year for global humanitarian and philanthropic work. And in a long interview with the Financial Times last week, Gates threw shade on his acolytes and the industry-serving causes they espouse – among them, internet connectivity for the world’s least fortunate. “As a priority, it’s a joke,” Gates said. “Hmm, which is more important, connectivity or malaria vaccine?”
Gates’ “minders” called the interviewer afterward to walk back the remarks, hoping to stifle a kerfluffle instigated by the “senior statesman of the tech and philanthropic worlds.” That is, after all, what PR people are paid to do. But in this case, they needn’t have. Gates’ remarks were in character and on target. No apology needed.
THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) to Bill Gates for speaking his mind and to his flack for a gentle touch.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: In PR, it’s a tightrope walk between minding and meddling. Flacks, especially for C-suite types, must learn to toe it without a net. Some of the sharpest brains in business seem to abandon all discretion when speaking to the press. On the other hand, an insecure flack who hovers officiously makes everyone nervous, and ironically, can create an interview environment ripe for the execu-gaffe. PR is, at its heart, a business of relationship management and trust, in multiple directions at once. An effective “handler” knows when to let the client or boss run the line and when to reel it in, without digging a hook in too deep.