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.

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.

Tech Founder’s Top 10 List Hits Bottom

pshih Tech Founders Top 10 List Hits Bottom

The PR Verdict: “F” (Full Fiasco) for start-up founder Peter Shih.

In this week’s edition of “Rich Tech Start-up Founders Behaving Badly,” enter 1) Peter Shih 2) a micro-blogging site and 3) a really bad idea. Shih, who co-founded Celery, a well-funded payments start-up, decided to take to his Medium page with a Top 10 list of what he dislikes about San Francisco, where he moved from New York at the request of his backers. Among his pet peeves in the City by the Bay: the public transit system, the weather, homeless people, cyclists, and women who don’t measure up to his standards of pulchritude. (Shih eventually deleted the expletive-laden post, but it is viewable here.)

All in derisive fun, Shih claimed, but San Franciscans didn’t see it that way. They unleashed a Shih-storm of criticism at the startup “bro,” who managed to showcase in his listicle just about every abhorrent stereotype of the Silicon Valley parvenu – bratty, entitled, self-involved, and tone-deaf.

To Shih, the blowback hit below the money belt, with attacks aimed also at his start-up. “Hate all you want,” he wrote in his first attempt at damage control. “But please stop bringing my company into this.” His proper mea culpa came over the weekend. Contrite to a fault, it did little to quell the ire, reading as if the prevailing cooler head was someone other than Shih himself.

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for Peter Shih, for running his mouth like a high schooler on the playground, not an entrepreneur with a business he’d like to see succeed.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Sarcasm rarely fits a business model. And when that business is your start-up, forget that you ever had an identity of your own. Shih embarrassingly lost sight of these two imperatives, as well as a third (at least): Have a good idea? Run it by someone. A brainstorm? Run it by three. And please, if you want to write something that shows you’re funny, do it on a napkin and put it in your pocket. Shih proved once again that 1) PR advisers and 2) grown-ups belong on the Top 10 list of “Things a Start-up Needs.”

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 FWD.us 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 FWD.us 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. FWD.us 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.

What To Say When Sued?

ELLENPAO What To Say When Sued?

PR Verdict: “C” for venture capital firm Kleiner and its handling of Ellen Pao's lawsuit.

What’s the wisest thing to say when being sued? That must have been the question Silicon Valley’s favourite venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers asked itself when recently probed about its sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit.  “We will defend ourselves vigorously” was its unimaginative statement to the media.  Ho hum at best.

The NY Times has taken up the pending case of Ellen Pao a junior partner at the firm, hired several years ago to work as Chief of Staff to one of the firm’s higher ups.  Trouble started brewing when another junior partner made sexual advances to her.  She consented a couple of times and then, as they say in the movies, she called the whole thing off.  The claim alleges that as a result of ending the relationship, her thwarted paramour started a five-year campaign of retaliation.

The filing alleges systemic discrimination against Pao and other women, including poorer pay than her male counterparts and the distribution of less lucrative investment opportunities to women in the firm, while juicy assignments go to male colleagues.  In brief the main complaint is that the firm fails to give women the full range of opportunities to be successful.  Presumably this is not the sort of publicity that Silicon Valley’s leading venture capital firm wants or needs?

The PR Verdict: “C” for Kleiner and its handling of this story.  Wasn’t there an opportunity to go further than the standard PR response?

The PR Takeaway:  The power of the archive is strong.  The firm, even if it settles on undisclosed terms, now has a major article in the internet archive that raises many questions. True the article did draw attention to it having more female partners than peers  but being more vocal in defense of the firm might have been a better tactic.  A female partner defended the firm saying  “I was drawn to the firm because of its diversity and have excelled here as have other women. …Everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed”.   Why not say the same thing from a corporate point of view and come out in the media as strongly as the defense planned for the courtroom?  What would have been the harm done?

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