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.

Three Steps FWD, Two Steps Back?

Screen Shot 2013 05 13 at 7.37.31 PM 150x60 Three Steps FWD, Two Steps Back?Political advocacy group was launched last month by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and so far it has run up an impressively depressing string of PR gaffes. As a tax-exempt social welfare organization” (a la Citizens United), it can raise and spend money to promote political and legislative aims virtually unchecked. But the group’s missteps have made it the story instead of its cause and now runs the risk of having little influence or gravitas.

Its initial focus was clear: comprehensive immigration reform. As a cause this made perfect sense. It is near and dear to talent-hungry tech firms and backed by deep-pocketed Silicon Valley luminaries including Eric Schmidt, Marissa Mayer and Bill Gates. The launch augured an auspicious foray into muscle-flexing issues advocacy in Washington.

But things went pear-shaped from the start. An embarrassing leak spoiled its launch, disclosing a seemingly unseemly strategy to promote its agenda via “avenues of distribution” dominated by member companies like Facebook and Yahoo. The leak forced president Joe Green (Zuck’s roommate at Harvard) to apologize. Then, it alienated supporters with a confusing advertising campaign that veered way off-topic, advocating for controversial projects like the Keystone XL pipeline and against Obamacare. said the ads sought to create “political cover” for supporters of immigration reform in Congress, but its move prompted progressive organizations to pull ads from Facebook in protest, and two key Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to later withdraw from the group.

The PR Verdict: “F” (Full fiasco) to date for Zuckerberg’s FWD.usfor bungling what should have been a sure-footed start. 

The PR Takeaway: Opening baby steps need to be unambiguous and unassailable. Opening gaffes can sink a new venture, and one misstep can lead to and/or magnify others. Move cautiously and deliberately. Leaks happen, so be mindful of how even internal communications might play in public. If something leaks, get back on message fast – with actions, not words, that spell out your group’s mission and galvanize supporters. This isn’t that hard. If Zuckerberg’s other business had stumbled as much at the outset, he might still be at Harvard studying for finals.