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.

The PRV 2013 Final Grade: And the “F” Goes to…

Healthcare Exchanges The PRV 2013 Final Grade: And the F Goes to...THE PR VERDICT’S “F” (FULL FIASCO) grade goes to HealthCare.gov, the website hub for US citizens to sign up for government-supplied health insurance. A long hoped-for dream of affordable healthcare for Americans, and what Barack Obama surely thought would be his presidential legacy, has turned into what is generally described as a nightmare.

Getting the Affordable Health Care Act bill passed seemed the hard part. The next step was constructing a website that would be easy to navigate and able to handle an onslaught of Americans in need of insurance. But surely this would be a cinch for Microsoft or Apple or any of America’s tech giants. Maybe, if they’d gotten the contract, or even been consulted.

From the start, HealthCare.gov was a disaster. The site bounced users off, refused to save their data, or was impossible to log onto. Worse, the few who did manage to get on and didn’t want to change their plans suddenly found themselves without insurance. The President’s angry promises to get the site fixed were empty next to facts emerging from a commission (yes, things went that bad). Not enough testing, wrong mainframe, blah tech excuse blah. Only this week has Microsoft been called in, but help arrived too late to save this story.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Under-promise and over-deliver. It’s easy to see why President Obama would have wanted to offer affordable healthcare as soon as possible. Now, in hindsight, it’s easy to see why he should have waited. The achievement is one thing, implementation an entirely different animal. Whether looking at a presidential legacy or a small business breaking sales expectations with a big account, plan. Factor in worst-case scenarios. Hire the best consultants. When the back-slapping over a major win is done, take a hard look at what’s ahead to see that your promise doesn’t become an error fail.

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.

Microsoft Gives Ballmer a Soft-Landing Sendoff

ballmer bw Microsoft Gives Ballmer a Soft Landing Sendoff

The PR Verdict: “B” (Good Show) for Microsoft and its long, slow farewell to Steve Ballmer.

Steve Ballmer’s slow exit as Microsoft CEO, announced last week, was either a surprise, or it wasn’t. Long-planned, or hastily arranged. Came at the “right time” or was long overdue. As always, it depends on the source. Tech’s original mega-gorilla, once disruptive but now doddering, did its best to give him a nice sendoff, while practically every other observer fell on the corpse to stick knives in for his decidedly mixed tenure.

Give Microsoft credit: Ballmer’s 13-year term at the helm, which will end sometime in the next 12 months, saw annualized profit grow 16 percent, but also a $600 billion market cap cut by more than half. The post-mortems dredged up other big misses – the Surface tablet PC, Windows Vista, and the Windows phone. Small wonder the company stock enjoyed a seven percent bounce on the day of the announcement.

Despite the rehash, Microsoft came away looking good. The company has been under fire for some time for having no clear transition plan. Now it does, announced in fairly orderly fashion. Transition management isn’t easy under the best of circumstances, and certainly Microsoft’s were far from that. The company needed to make a decisive but not too sudden move, and succeeded.

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Microsoft, for sticking to a classic PR script that minimizes blowback and cements its key messages.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Big news, even if double-edged, has its advantages. When breaking it, remember that you control the story and can pick your timing. The Ballmer announcement came on a Friday in late August, about the sleepiest time of the year, and in standalone form: It won’t be directly linked to Microsoft’s last sorry earnings announcement in July, which featured a $900 million product writedown. Nor will it distract much from its next product release, Windows 8.1, in October. The company made Ballmer available for one interview, and that will be the reference going forward. Finally, it left the exact timing of his departure vague, concealing behind an opaque corporate façade the likely fact that he is already gone.

Does Microsoft Need to Think Different?

Ballmer MSFT tablet Does Microsoft Need to Think Different?

The PR Verdict: “D” (PR Problematic) for Steve Ballmer’s Microsoft.

Pity poor Microsoft – no, really. Tech’s original 800 lb. gorilla may have shed a few pounds since its heyday, but it continues to punch well below its weight. And its PR strategy, such as it is, doesn’t seem to be helping much.

Consider this: While its Q4 2013 earnings, announced last week, showed enviable revenue and income gains year over year, they also included a $900 million writedown on unsold inventory of its Surface RT tablet computer, a hoped-for iPad killer. In response, it announced a management shake-up of its hardware division. Its stock tanked anyway, dropping 11 percent  and erasing $30 billion in value.

From a PR standpoint, Microsoft continues to fare the worst among seven tech giants caught up in an ongoing debacle over the US government’s Internet eavesdropping program known as PRISM. It ill-advisedly sought to use the breach to stoke competition, going after Google in a PR campaign promoting online privacy. That proved embarrassing after new disclosures surfaced that Microsoft helped the government circumvent its own encryption methods.

Institutional investors, dismayed by the company’s strategy and execution, want a seat on the board and a say in management. Of particular concern is succession planning for CEO Steve Ballmer, who has led the company since 2000. Microsoft says it has a plan but won’t disclose it.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Microsoft. Its half-measures, hubris and haughtiness suggest the need for a full-on PR intervention.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Take a hard look within. A periodic full-scale review of PR strategy is essential, and best conducted by an outside consultant free from corporate groupthink, before a crisis. Microsoft is fumbling on basic issues management. It could have given investors succor with a mea culpa on its product writedown. It could allay the longer-term management concerns with greater transparency. It should have seen the folly in trying to capitalize on the privacy issue while damaging disclosures were potentially in the wind. Long-time archrival Apple has maintained goodwill in the past with public acknowledgments and apologies for its missteps. To quote its rival, Microsoft needs to “Think different.”

PRISM, Through the PR Looking Glass

 PRISM, Through the PR Looking Glass

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for Silicon Valley’s tech giants, for keeping it short but not mincing words in response to PRISM allegations.

PRISM, news outlets reported last week, is a clandestine program under which the US National Security Agency obtained “direct” access to the servers of Microsoft, Apple, Google, AOL, and Facebook, all of whom signed on to the program. The disclosure came on the heels of similar revelations about the government obtaining call logs of Verizon customers and spying on journalists. As described by the media, PRISM, an acronym for “Planning Tool for Resource Integration, Synchronization, and Management,” appears to be far more obtrusive and Orwellian than previously thought. One anonymous source said it enabled the NSA to “literally watch you as you type.”

Or does it? Faster than a trending tweet, the companies mentioned as being complicit in the citizen spying issued unambiguous denials. “Outrageous,” said Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. “Never heard of PRISM,” said Apple. Those denials, plus the government’s declassification and disclosure of some PRISM details, cast doubt on the story, which drew surprisingly muted public outrage anyway. Verizon’s response, in contrast, seemed contrived and concerned more with containing PR damage. The Washington Post, one of the outlets that broke the story, appeared later to walk back its initial reporting as other media outlets found experts to assert that the leaked PRISM documents had been misread.

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for Silicon Valley’s tech giants, for keeping it short.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Keep it simple. When the story is misleading or just plain wrong, don’t waste a second in responding. Don’t get bogged down in ambiguous language that produces the infamous non-denial denial. Sometimes PR is not just about PR; it’s about setting the record straight, and doing so before a story long on accusations but short on facts spins wildly out of control. Journalists can make mistakes and some – gasp! – have agendas. When the press bites, reach out to your journalism friends (you have made some friends, haven’t you?) to set the story straight. And remember; bonus points for acting aggrieved, not angry.