The PRV Report Card: This Week’s Winners & Losers

 The PRV Report Card: This Weeks Winners & LosersPR WINNER OF THE WEEK: “A” (PR PERFECT) to security firm Codenomicon and Google researcher Neel Mehta, both of whom discovered the web security bug known as Heartbleed. The bug, a flaw that allows access to user information on what was thought to be safely encrypted websites and search engines, has been around for a while, but was found simultaneously by vigilant researchers Mehta and Codenomicon. All sounded the alarm, which may have circumvented breaches in the millions.

 The PRV Report Card: This Weeks Winners & LosersPR LOSER OF THE WEEK: “F” (FULL FIASCO) to Katherine Heigl, who perpetuated her image as a cranky prima donna with a lawsuit against drugstore chain Duane Reade. The store’s transgression? Tweeting a photo of her walking with two of their shopping bags. Heigl is a “highly recognized celebrity… When plaintiff chooses to endorse a product or service, she is highly selective and well compensated,” the lawsuit sniffed. In other words, as one gossip web site snarked, “Basically: Katherine Heigl don’t do no free advertising. She can’t just have her grumpy, exhausted face freely associated with some drugstore FOR FREE..” Perhaps Heigl should invest in a good mirror. Duane Reade carries them, we hear…

kimjongun The PRV Report Card: This Weeks Winners & LosersTHE PRV “THERE’S NO ‘THERE’ THERE” AWARD TO the North Korean Parliament, who this week re-elected, to no one’s surprise, dictator Kim Jong-un as head the country’s top governing agency, the National Defense Commission. Kim’s election (if that really is the right word) means he is still in control despite political turmoil in the regime and can work to consolidate power by filling leadership posts left vacant by – you guessed it – his purges. The government-run news agency called his re-election a sign of  “the unchanged will of the military and the people” to support him.

Tech VC Plays Nice with Anarchist Group

kevinroseprotest Tech VC Plays Nice with Anarchist Group

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Google venture capitalist Kevin Rose.

The class warfare clashes between San Francisco’s tech-nauts and tech-nots continued this weekend with a protest outside the home of Google Ventures general partner Kevin Rose. But rather than escalate tensions, Rose, who also founded Digg, the news aggregator site, defused matters by establishing common ground with his detractors.

Descending on Rose’s Potrero Hill neighborhood Sunday, the anti-techies brought banners and flyers denouncing Rose as a “parasite” who “directs the flow of capital from Google into the tech startup bubble that is destroying San Francisco.” Identifying themselves as fed-up service workers and members of anarchist group “The Counterforce,” they outlined an agenda far bigger than spoiling a venture capitalists’s Sunday afternoon. In what amounts to a ransom note, they demanded that Google donate $3 billion “to an anarchist organization of our choosing. This money will then be used to create autonomous, anti-capitalist, and anti-racist communities throughout the Bay Area and Northern California.”

Rose, to his credit, responded with restraint, taking to Twitter to say he agreed  “that we need to solve rising rents, keep the SF culture, and crack down on landlords booting folks out” and that all San Franciscans “definitely need to figure out a way to keep the diversity.” Now, about that $3 billion…

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Google’s Kevin Rose, who kept his cool and didn’t play into a possible PR trap.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Called out in public? Don’t lash back. Not only might your antagonist be trying to goad you into doing or saying something foolish, you also don’t stand to win sympathy and support with a churlish response. Consider the messenger as well as the message. The Counterforce’s anti-tech manifesto reads a little unripe and more provocative than proactive. Rose, who has made a horrendous public gaffe before, might have learned from it. He comes off here as eminently reasonable and eager to seek common ground with a fringe group he doesn’t need to antagonize.

Google Saying Spying Allegations “Hard to Imagine” Calms No One

googlelogo Google Saying Spying Allegations Hard to Imagine Calms No One

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Google.

Much haranguing and hand-wringing has come in the wake of revelations of internet spying by the government, with the possible complicity (or willful ignorance) of the tech world’s biggest firms. But what if those firms themselves are spying on users and defending it as a right ot service? We’re looking at you, Google.

Michael Arrington, the tech venture capitalist and blogger who founded the industry-tracking Techcrunch blog, wrote recently “about that time Google spied on my gmail” in response to leaked information he received. The alleged breach, which Arrington is “nearly certain” occurred, drew a direct response from Google’s general counsel, Kent Walker, who answered the “serious allegation” noting that although Google’s terms of service “might legally permit such access, we have never done this and it’s hard for me to imagine circumstances where  we would investigate a leak in that way.”

Such equivocacy hardly quells concerns, but Google is not alone here. Arrington’s initial post came in response to word that Microsoft spied on Hotmail users in the interest of corporate security. (Other firms have also been cited.) But Microsoft followed its initial double-talk defense with an unambigiuous avowal that going forward it would not read user emails and instead refer matters to law enforcement when necessary. No word yet on whether Google got the message.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Google, whose top lawyer’s spying denial didn’t do the job.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Watch legalese. Google’s response here points up the dynamic tension between good lawyering and good PR. Corporate lawyers and imageminders both claim their firm’s best interests at heart. But in answering public criticism or accusations, the two sides  must work together to craft the right language. Lawyers shy away from absolute statements that might come back to haunt in litigation, while PR pros push stronger language that puts matters to rest. Each instance must be weighed on its own, keeping in mind that a non-denial denial satisfies no one.

Google Co-Founder Shows Why Honesty Isn’t Always the Best PR Policy

larrypage Google Co Founder Shows Why Honesty Isnt Always the Best PR Policy

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Google’s Larry Page.

Google co-founder Larry Page has a chronic voice condition that forces him to speak not much above a whisper. But what he says can still raise the roof.

Page, who is worth $32 billion, sat for an interview with Charlie Rose last week in Vancouver and confirmed a statement he has made before: He would rather another entrepreneur billionaire inherit his fortune than leave it to charity. As for a candidate, he mentioned Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal and founder of Tesla, who aspires to send people to Mars with another company he runs, SpaceX. The interview was summarized in Wired and picked up on tech blogs.

Page’s point: That money in the hands of a forward-thinking entrepreneur at the helm of an enlightened company isn’t such a bad thing. In Musk’s case, Page said: “He wants to go to Mars. That’s a worthy goal.” Perhaps, but Page’s comments paint him more as a plutocrat, not a philanthropist.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Google co-founder Larry Page, who probably should have ducked what was a pretty loaded question.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Leave nuanced opinion to the Op-Ed page. While Larry Page might have a point, when conveyed in a soundbite the meaning is lost and the entire interview hijacked. Page spoke about many things to Rose, security and privacy among them. But what people will likely come away with is a less-than-favorable view of another Silicon Valley rich guy who wants to give his money to another rich guy. As another observer noted, does that make Page a donor, or an investor? Either way, this probably isn’t the sort of PR Page and his people wanted.

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.

The PRV Report Card: This Week’s Winners & Losers

 The PRV Report Card: This Weeks Winners & LosersPR WINNER OF THE WEEK: “A” (PR PERFECT) to Trustwave Spider Labs, for being credited with identifying a massive hacking operation of over two million social media account usernames and passwords stolen from Facebook, Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, and other sites. Trustwave researchers found this latest cache after a massive attack on Adobe that left an astounding 38 million accounts vulnerable. “We don’t have evidence [the hackers] logged into these accounts, but they probably did,” said John Miller, a security research manager at Trustwave. The compromised companies notified users after Trustwave tipped them off. Kudos to the PR flaks who alerted the media that it was Trustwave, not the individual sites, that found evidence of the breaches.

googlevil The PRV Report Card: This Weeks Winners & LosersPR LOSER OF THE WEEK: “F” (Full Fiasco) to Google, following disclosure that it funded political lobbying groups that helped force the recent US government shutdown. The “Don’t Be Evil” doers have, in fact, supported a number of right-wing organizations and are fairly transparent about it. Their contributions to Heritage Action, which actively pushed for the government shutdown, came to light in a report last week by a liberal non-profit. Google, like other big tech firms, has a strong libertartian, anti-tax streak and an active cash-backed lobbying effort in Washington that, like most, gets spread around to all sides. But it’s one thing to back both sides in a legitimate policy debate, and another entirely to fund what amounts to domestic political terrorism.

 The PRV Report Card: This Weeks Winners & LosersTHE PRV “THERE’S NO ‘THERE’ THERE” AWARD to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford for the most recent plot twist in the bizarre political theater playing out in Canada’s largest city. Ford’s latest disavowal is that he did not offer $5000 and a car to alleged drug dealers in exchange for a video of him smoking crack cocaine. “Number one, that’s an outright lie and number two, you can talk to my lawyers about it,” Ford said on a Washington DC-based radio program, to which he was invited to discuss football. This, of course, follows his denial-then-admission of smoking crack in the first place, and his denial that he orally pleasured a female staffer (“I’ve got more than enough to eat at home,” was his comment).  At this point, even football isn’t a safe topic for Rob Ford to speak about.

Google Keeps It Green

google inhofe dont fund evil 150x150 Google Keeps It Green

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good show) for Google, for not dodging a difficult PR situation.

“A better web. Better for the environment,” is Google’s glinty-green promise to the climate-conscious web user. Its massive, energy-devouring data centers use half the power of other such facilities – and so on, and so on, as the company contends in setting forth its conservationist bona fides.

So it’s completely understandable that the Jolly Green Giant of web search, whose corporate motto is “Don’t be evil,” would raise eyebrows and ire for hosting a fund-raiser for one of Congress’s most outspoken climate change deniers, Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma. The fundraiser, at Google’s Washington, DC headquarters last Thursday, drew a smattering of protesters, condemnations on the web, and news coverage of both.

Google, whose political donations rain down equally across ideological and party lines, initially declined to comment, but wisely thought better of its reticence. A spokesperson subsequently noted that Google has invested $700 million in job-creating data centers in Inhofe’s state that are powered by wind energy. Hosting the Inhofe fund-raiser is not blanket endorsement of all his positions, the flack said. “While we disagree on climate change policy, we share an interest with Senator Inhofe in the employees and data center we have in Oklahoma.”

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Google, for not dodging a difficult situation and telling it like it is.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Hold fast to your principles, and don’t let a public outcry turn your compass. Google’s green commitment is indeed substantial – the Inhofe fundraiser doesn’t change that. Like any publicly-held company, it has to balance obligations to corporate values with obligations to shareholders. Its forthright and unapologetic response in a slighty sticky situation constitutes reasonable deference to exigency over rigid adherence to ideals. Down the road, such realpolitik preserves Google’s ability to exert its potentially considerable influence in the conservation conversation. Its public response in this teapot-sized tempest confirms that being PR-savvy means making sure you never have to say you’re sorry.