Venture Capitalist Enters PR Forbidden Zone

tom perkins 2.png Venture Capitalist Enters PR Forbidden Zone

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for Tom Perkins.

Tom Perkins is on a roll – straight downhill. The venture capital icon who founded Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers has cemented his reputation among the Obscenely Wealthy Behaving Badly for comments he made last week likening rich techies and other members of the vilified “1 percent” class to victims of the Holocaust.

Perkins, in a weekend letter published in the Wall Street Journal, compared recent protests by affordable housing advocates in San Francisco against Google buses to Nazi targeting of Jews. “I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent,” he wrote. Forget the unspoken rule of debate that whoever first invokes Nazis in an argument loses automatically. Perkins later apologized – sort of – for his gaffe, but really, one should expect nothing less from him. He has always been over the top, shockingly, even willfully flouting the concept of noblesse oblige at every turn. Hard to believe that the man Perkins partnered with to start his VC firm in 1972 had himself fled the Nazis.

Perkins cited that relationship in a next-day TV interview, in which he sported a $380,000 watch and lamented how his eponymous firm chose to “throw me under the bus” for his comments. All that privilege and still a victim.

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for Perkins, who is far too rich, and perhaps a bit too daft, to choose his words more carefully.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: To end a losing conversation, stop talking. Of course, this is not Tom Perkins’s way. In his post-comment comments, he sought to explain his choice of words and clarify his point, to little avail. A direct, unqualified apology would have been better, but big egos are rigid and only become more sclerotic with time, incapable of adapting and absorbing new lessons. One of those lessons: Before committing words to paper, and thence to print, have someone else run a soundcheck.

Google, Walmart Internal Memos Go External

 Google, Walmart Internal Memos Go External

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Google and Walmart.

A set of “talking points” is a basic element of the PR professional’s toolkit. But should talking points be broadly distributed to employees? The short answer: maybe.

Two incidents this week suggest talking points are best kept under lock and key. Both involve documents, intended for internal use only, that were leaked. At Google, talking points about the company’s private buses, which are irritating most of San Francisco, sounded imperious and gave the impression the company was putting words in Googlers’ mouths. The memo suggested employees say that eliminating the buses would increase city congestion because they’d have to drive to work, and a condescending “Feel free to add your own style or opinion” also rubbed people the wrong way. And Walmart‘s fictional scripts about unionization were leaked by Occupy, the protest group against economic inequality. The scripts  were goofy theoretical representations of how employees might discuss the prospect of unionization.

What was wrong with these documents wasn’t the content but the tone. Google comes off as superior (Valleywag.com described “a memo from the overlords”), while Wal-Mart’s fake conversations feel like they’re trying to put one over on employees. These companies might have escaped  some of the negative PR from these leaks if they’d just provided workers with straightforward facts that articulated their company’s position – nothing more.

THE PR VERDICT:  “C” (Distinctly OK) for Google and Walmart. Good ideas, clumsy execution.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: A company with employees is a company with spokespeople – lots of them. Trying to manage your workers’ public commentary is futile, not to mention potentially damaging from a PR perspective. Instead, be up front. Don’t tell employees what to say or think, just provide the company’s reasons for doing what it’s doing (and leave out the hyperbole and manipulation). Employees who agree with you are smart enough to adopt your eloquent words for their own. The ones who don’t? Well, a company memo won’t change their minds anyway.

Google’s Ferry Service Misses the Boat

ssgoog Googles Ferry Service Misses the Boat

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Google.

First by land, now by sea? Google, trying to get its San Francisco employees to and from work through the car-choked Silicon Valley corridor without aggravating the local gentry in the process, now has a private ferry to go with the buses that piggyback on city bus routes, clog streets, and generally irritate residents who don’t happen to work at Google. So how was the seemingly civic- and green-minded move greeted locally? More catcalls.

The buses, among others used by tech firms including Apple, Facebook, and Yahoo, use city bus stops to take on and discharge passengers. Their “unlawful” use of city infrastructure, coupled with rising disdain for tech’s rampant hegemony over city life, drew a raucous protest last month when protesters blocked a Google bus and smashed a window. Last week, the city proposed a $1-per-stop tax on each bus, expected to cost each company about $100,000 annually – a fee that critics derided as, well, mere bus fare.

Enter the gleaming, Wi-Fi-equipped, hydrofoil-assisted catamaran Google has hired for a 30-day trial run. The company said it hoped the move would help spare residents inconvenience. Inconvenience perhaps, but not ire. Nothing like the sight of techies zipping by on a flashy boat that used to take kids out for whale-watching tours to bridge the cultural and socioeconomic divide. Think of the children!

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Google, for a yeoman’s effort that slightly missed the boat.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Look past the problem. Sometimes the solution has nothing to do with it. The issue here for Google and others isn’t buses; it’s style and tone. If these firms put more effort, and money, into being good corporate citizens, there might be less of an uproar about whose bus stops where, and less of a sense that Googlers and their ilk seem to breathe better air than the rest of San Franciscans. All aboard now!

Tech Titans Flex Anti-Surveillance Muscle With… a Website?

SurvReform Tech Titans Flex Anti Surveillance Muscle With... a Website?

The PR Verdict: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Big Tech’s anti-snooping website.

The tech sector’s biggest names – Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Facebook, LinkedIn, and others – have taken a hit this year for their complicity with government surveillance programs. With each new creepy disclosure on the depth and scope of the spying, the tech firms have found more courage to fight back  for the freedom of the Internet and the privacy rights of their users. Hence this week we have their boldest move to date…um, a new website?

Well, a feckless-looking Silicon Valley had to do something. Eight firms with a combined value of $1.4 trillion have signed on to an effort to reform “global” government surveillance – though clearly the main bogey is the US. Taking the time-honored but largely symbolic tack of an “open letter to Washington,” the tech firms cite the “urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide” and implore the US to take the lead. “For our part, we are focused on keeping users’ data secure,” they add. Not to mention their business models.

What’s missing? How about telecom companies, network equipment makers, financial interests like credit card companies? Again, it’s a start. As a skeptic notes, the effort is driven more by economic than good-government interest, as the firms continue to face backlash for cooperating with the surveillance effort in the first place.

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for the tech sector backers of surveillance reform.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Give your cause higher purpose. You’ll win more friends, allies and better headlines. The Tech sector backers of the surveillance reform effort have a clear economic interest in protecting their users from prying government eyes. But “Don’t spy on our users – we might lose money” is hardly a rallying cry. Silicon Valley is imbued with a libertarian spirit that abhors government intrusion, if not always for the noblest reasons. Whether the website is just a PR move, or a lead-in to real political action backed by the sector’s considerable economic might, will be monitored closely. And not just by government snoops.

Great Minds – and Great Minders – Think Alike

BillGates Great Minds   and Great Minders   Think Alike

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) to Bill Gates

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.

Start-Up CEO Tweets Stiletto in Mouth

cortellheels Start Up CEO Tweets Stiletto in Mouth

The PR Verdict: F (“Full Fiasco”) for tech entrepreneur Jorge Cortell.

Another week, another case of a tech start-up CEO going full Neanderthal on Twitter with witless, sexist comments – and tweeting from a business conference with hungry VCs, no less. This week’s Caveman award goes to Jorge Cortell,  CEO of healthcare startup Kanteron Systems and a self-described “privacy hacktivist” who doesn’t seem to see the value in keeping his private opinions to himself.

At an event in Manhattan last week, where high-powered venture capital firms were pitching their quals and services to entrepreneurs, Cortell tweeted a pic of a female attendee in stiletto heels with the comment: “Event supposed to be for entrepreneurs, VCs, but these heels (I’ve seen several like this)… WTF?” and the hashtag “#brainsnotrequired.” Amid the ensuing uproar, Cortell said he was simply commenting on the unhealthy height of the heels and the wearer’s ignorance, not gender. “Perhaps a man was wearing those.”

Rrrright. And lack of “culture fit” is why there aren’t more women in tech. Cortell defended and repeat-tweeted his nonsense argument until Twitter temporarily suspended his account. Valleywag and The Wall Street Journal picked up the exchange, assuring Cortell his place on the Tech-Sexist wall of shame.

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) to Cortell, who has done his industry no favors in breaking from its frat boy image.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Keep personal opinions out of your business dialogue. You are what you tweet. Never tweet anything you wouldn’t be prepared to say publicly before an intimate audience of, say, several thousand people – one that includes potential investors and customers, the media, your competitors and detractors, people who don’t look like you. Silicon Valley and its enablers are still a long ways off from penalizing “tech-bros” stuck in a frat-boy mindset of their college years, but that day will come. Better to stay ahead of this curve. If your product promises to change the world, aspire to do the same.

Twitter CEO Won’t Duck Challenge (But Should)

costolo11 Twitter CEO Wont Duck Challenge (But Should)

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Twitter CEO Dick Costolo.

Feisty Twitter CEO Dick Costolo never shies away from a flame war, slugging it out in 140 characters or less with all comers. His firm’s forthcoming IPO was apparently no occasion for him to consider toning it down. This time, he’s taken to task critics of Twitter’s virtually all-white, all-male leadership.

Going into its IPO, Twitter, as the New York Timenoted last week, has no female investors, no female board members, and only one woman among its top executives. And she was hired just five weeks ago. Those numbers aren’t rare in Silicon Valley, but that’s hardly cause to forgive the oversight, as Twitter’s critics noted. “The fact that they went to the IPO without a single woman on the board, how dare they?” said Vivek Wadhwa, a Stanford professor.

Twitter declined comment on the matter, but not Costolo. In a tweet, he reverted to name-calling, comparing Wadhwa to Carrot Top, an outlandish, hyperbolic comic. The battle was quickly joined, and while Costolo might have a point, is this really the story his company needs right now as its IPO filing comes under scrutiny?

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Twitter’s Dick Costolo, for letting his ego get the better of him at a critical time for his company.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Choose your battles, and your timing. For one, Twitter’s corporate demurral on the subject looks a little silly next to Costolo’s tweeted tirade. For two, why create needless distraction right now? Sure it’s not likely the kerfluffle will adversely affect the IPO share price, but what was gained? A more mature response might have given the opportunity to engage constructively on an important tech industry issue – the dearth of women in leadership roles. More generally, though Costolo has won praise for corralling an unfocused, wayward company, shouldn’t a CEO be striving consistently to raise the bar on level of discourse instead of knocking it down a few notches? One hundred and forty characters can be used for good, but it’s surprising how much damage can be done by one character’s bad attitude.

Crashing BlackBerry Grounds its Corporate Fleet

bombardierblackberry Crashing BlackBerry Grounds its Corporate Fleet

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for BlackBerry, looking business-classier for flying coach.

Running a struggling business? Talk to BlackBerry.  The once-dominant Canadian firm that missed the smartphone revolution has slid into a long, painful decline. Friday, the teetering handset maker announed a $1 billion quarterly loss and a huge restructuring including the elimination of 4,500 jobs, or about 40 percent of its workforce. Yesterday, it announced plans to be taken private by one of its largest investors.

Its latest miss was remarkable only for the size of the loss. A more eyebrow-raising revelation came to light in the media over the weekend: BlackBerry acquired a third corporate jet, estimated at over $20 million.

B lackBerry responded not only with a plausible explanation, but also a plan of action.  The jet had been purchased to replace the other two and in light of its current business condition, a company spokesman said, BlackBerry would sell all three of its corporate jets and “no longer own any planes.” This, of course, is the logical, prudent thing to do, and Blackberry wins points for it. In the age of corporate excess hubris can be fatal.

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) to BlackBerry, for a quick response that defused an immaterial but nonetheless embarrassing story.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Symbolic actions count. A global firm that, though troubled, is still worth billions arguably has a need for its own jet, and BlackBerry could have rested on that claim. But doing so would hardly have engendered goodwill for a company axing nearly half  its workers. The logic might not have figured directly in BlackBerry’s decision to ground its fleet, but at least the company, already with plenty to regret, has one less bad decision to answer for.

Chipotle’s “Scarecrow” Is a Recipe for Marketing Success

  Chipotles Scarecrow Is a Recipe for Marketing Success

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) to Chipotle for spicing up the fast-food wars with creative marketing.

Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. and Moonbot Studios have wowed consumers and advertising critics with “The Scarecrow,” a beautifully produced animated short film accompanying  Chipotle’s new anti-Big Food game.

The three-minute film, backed by a Fiona Apple track and described more than once as “haunting,” looks at a bleak world where people mindlessly ingest edible products supplied by “Crow Foods,” an industrial farming giant that secretly pumps up its chickens with hormones and stuffs its cows in tiny cages. The film’s hero is a scarecrow who realizes the injustice to all animals – both two- and four-legged – and establishes his own fresh food business, David to Crow’s Goliath.

Already hailed as “Oscar-worthy,” the short is a tremendous PR win for Chipotle – despite the fact that it shows the company’s name only once, at the very end. That’s very intentional, Chipotle Chief Marketing Officer Mark Crumpacker told USA Today, because the company sees its target diners as young adults who “are skeptical of brands that perpetuate themselves too much.” For that reason, Chipotle has generally avoided TV advertising and focused instead on more creative hooks, like this film and the game that is played on Apple products, to grab customer attention. With this campaign Chipotle has positioned itself as not only the thinking man’s Taco Bell but the healthier and more morally comfortable alternative to most fast-food options.

THE PR VERDICT:  “A” (PR Perfect) to Chipotle for spicing up the fast-food wars, too long the domain of gray hamburgers, factory farming, and boring commercials.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Know what your customers want – and what they don’t. Chipotle’s campaign may seem unorthodox, but the company didn’t blindly speculate about what their patrons might like. They expertly blended their target demographic’s entertainment, idealogical, and tech preferences with the company’s well-established core message: our food is fresh and from sustainable sources. Where they took chances was in creative expression, and for that they partnered with an award-winning graphics studio and singer to tell their story. For Chipotle, “The Scarecrow” is a recipe for successful marketing.