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.

App Pranksters Dupe Media, Mock Tech, Teach All

livr App Pranksters Dupe Media, Mock Tech, Teach All

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) to LIVR’s “founders.”

There’s nothing like a good PR hoax to showcase the rewards and potential pitfalls involved in launching a new product. After all, if you can generate considerable buzz with a fake, imagine what you can do with the real thing. And last week’s prank, from a faux app start-up called LIVRwas pitch perfect.

Foisted on an overeager and unsuspecting SXSW media, LIVR purported to be a social network one could only join when drunk, accessed via a phone attachment – a “biometric bouncer” – that measured one’s blood alcohol content. The higher one’s BAC, the more features available. If sufficiently tanked, users could “Drunk Dial™” another user at random (trademark designation a nice touch) or play “Truth or Dare,” along with more conventional features like finding nearby hot bars or those with drink specials. A morning-after “Blackout” button promised to erase all incriminating evidence of judgment-impaired behavior, including photos and calls.

The elaborate ruse featured cold-calls to reporters and a website and video with actors posing convincingly as CEO and chief developer. A number of news outlets were duped, including this one.  Hoodwinking the media and holding up a mirror to the overhyped, self-involved world of tech start-ups was the point of the gag, the prankster-in-chief said later, coming clean after a few media outlets did some digging basic reporting. A resounding success.

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) to LIVR’s pranksters, for an object lesson in how to generate buzz – and screen fakes.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Know your advantage and when to exercise it. Exceedingly well planned and executed, the LIVR gag succeeded also on timing and placement. The perpetrators sprang their ruse at the start of  tech-heavy event thick with story-chasing media. Their premise was entirely plausible given the anything-goes world of start-ups. They knew exactly what to sell and how to sell it. If their comedy careers don’t pan out, they have bright futures in marketing.

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!

No Apology for Snapchat Security Breach

snapchatspeigel No Apology for Snapchat Security Breach

The PR Verdict: “F” (Full Fiasco) for Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel.

Does being CEO and founder of the Internet’s overvalued social fad of the moment mean never having to say you’re sorry? Looks like CEO Evan Spiegel of Snapchat, the self-deleting photo-messaging app, thinks so.

Hackers celebrated New Year’s Day by publishing the user names and private phone numbers associated with 4.6 million Snapchat profiles. The breach occurred after the start-up, whose very appeal derives from its promise of privacy, seemingly ignored an outside security firm’s warning about a security hole. Citing Snapchat’s months-long lack of action, the firm made the warning public on Christmas Eve.

It’s not the first time Snapchat and its founder have been called out for hubris, but this one could really cost. In the days after the breach, security experts lined up to predict class-action lawsuits and regulatory investigations. As for Spiegel,  he declined to offer any kind of apology or mea culpa, telling an interviewer that in a fast-moving business like his, “If you spend your time looking backwards, you’re just going to kill yourself.” An attitude like that could make Snapchat as short-lived as the photos its users share.

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) to Evan Spiegel, for a tone-deaf response to a crisis that only a company lawyer could love.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Own your mistakes. A 22-year-old CEO of a $2 billion company, for all his genius and entrepreneurial skill, probably doesn’t possess the maturity to get beyond the “It’s not my fault” mentality. But Spiegel’s non-apology almost certainly came on advice from nervous lawyers that he avoid admitting culpability. It showcases the dynamic tension that typically exists between corporate legal and PR teams, whose overlapping missions occasionally chafe. We’ll see if Snapchat remains as blasé when users fight back.

Yet Another Tech CEO’s Filter Error

gopman Yet Another Tech CEOs Filter Error

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for Greg Gopman of AngelHack.

In San Francisco, the backlash against privileged, self-absorbed Titans of Tech is rising faster than city rents – themselves cresting to new heights on the buying power of civic-blinded techies. With a round-the-clock public platform but no internal filter, these kids keep saying the darnedest things. The latest Marie Antoinette moment comes from Greg Gopman of AngelHack, a start up for start ups, who’s apparently tired of stepping over – or is it trampling? – homeless people to get to work.

The rant on his Facebook page was astonishing. “Why the heart of our city has to be overrun by crazy, homeless drug dealers, dropouts, and trash I have no clue,” he wrote.  In other cities, he wistfully noted, the less fortunate “keep to themselves. They sell small trinkets, beg coyly, stay quiet, and generally stay out of your way. They realize it’s a privilege to be in the civilized part of town and view themselves as guests… There is nothing positive gained from having them so close to us.”

Gopman deleted the post and apologized the next day. AngelHack disavowed him a day later, saying he had officially left the firm in October –  they just hadn’t announced it yet – and channelling a more beneficent attitude. No surprise that the apologia drew far less press than the gaffe that prompted it.

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) to Greg Gopman, for embarrassing himself, his company and his entire industry in a city that is starting to profoundly resent it.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: In PR, no one is an island. The saying is especially inviolate for anyone whose celebrity derives from business prominence. Unleashed on social media’s open seas, your late-night brainstorm could produce a storm of quite another type. Interactions with the have-not class are inevitable for most city dwellers, but not everyone turns that into a 300-word screed. Develop a fiilter that asks: Does this need to be said, by me, right now? If in doubt, ask someone else.

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.

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.

Obama Administration’s Epic Tech Fails

 Obama Administrations Epic Tech Fails

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) to the Obama administration’s technical advisors. (Pictured: NSA leaker Edward Snowden)

Earlier this week, President Obama had to call French President Francois Hollande and explain, if he could, why the US was spying on the phone records of over 70 million French citizens. The issue was brought to light by former US National Security Administration contractor Edward Snowden, who revealed NSA secrets to several news agencies months ago. Now more than ever, it is imperative that President Obama’s technical administration locate the fugitive tech expert. Not just to save face; they could actually use his help.

Aside from being unable to locate Snowden, a man of Bourne-movie level abilities to erase every trace of his movements, the Obama administration has lost credibility over the technical glitches on Healthcare.gov, the main portal to signing up for mandatory Obamacare. Yesterday, another gaffe: a Twitter feed that has been revealing embarrassing inside information about foreign policy for the past two years was traced back to Jofi Joseph, an official in the White House’s National Security Staff. #howembarrassing.

Americans have grown uncomfortably accustomed to government failures. A lack of regulations allowed the collapse of the economy. Bipartisanship led to a shutdown. Now the website to register for healthcare doesn’t work, prompting the president to record a video encouraging people to sign up “the old fashioned way,” via phone or in person. Presumably, this video was made around the time of the  call to the French president about the tech guy the CIA can’t find, and before the Twitter revelation.

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) to the Obama administration’s technical advisors.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: If you want to do your best, surround yourself with the best. America is not exactly short on technical excellence, yet the president’s cabinet signed off on using ten-year-old technology for Healthcare.gov. The military stands by the accuracy of its drones, yet the US can’t find one guy who’s talked to several major international newspapers, or another guy dissing the White House from inside the White House. The PR solution would be obtaining the best and the brightest to fix the glitches and increase security. Maybe Snowden could provide a reference.

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.