Why Internet.org Can’t Get a “Like”

internetorg Why Internet.org Cant Get a Like

The PR Verdict: “D” (PR Problematic) to Internet.org and its tech sector backers.

Facebook Founder/CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org plan has a seemingly noble purpose: to bring low-cost internet connectivity to the two-thirds of people in the world who don’t have it. It’s a praiseworthy and unassailable plan at first look, given the field-leveling potential it represents for the world’s have-nots. So where’s the love? Not in the business or tech press, that’s certain.

Here’s why: The mobile tech companies backing the initiative with Facebook all stand to profit nicely from the increased global internet usage it envisions. Internet.org’s chief goals are to make mobile connectivity more affordable and data transfer more efficient, while incentivizing businesses to lower the cost of access. Tellingly, the consortium includes handset makers and software companies but as yet no service providers, for whom the business impact is potentially less lucrative.

Defending the plan against attacks that it is self-serving and disingenuous, and its potential benefits dubious, Zuckerberg noted that the disparities created by the so-called Digital Divide could not be “solved through altruism alone” and that any plan needs to be economically sustainable. He acknowledged that Facebook, now at a billion users strong but forever needing more to grow, would “theoretically” benefit even though real profits might be a very long way off. “But I’m willing to make that investment because I think it’s really good for the world,” he said. So can he get a “Like?” Unlikely.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) to Zuckerberg and his Internet.org partners, for trying to save the world by helping themselves.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Business and philanthropy don’t mix, so don’t try. As a going concern, if you want to give something back, support a charity or start your own. Zuckerbook & Co. would have encountered less flack if they presented the business case for their plan first and then called out its potential economic and humanitarian upside. Corporate social responsibility is about engendering goodwill, but today’s Internet is more about business than social justice. Given Silicon Valley’s free-market allergy to regulation, its tendency toward conspicuous consumption, and occasional displays of plain disdain for the non-cognoscenti, it’s hard to accept this claim of enlightened self-interest at face value.

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.

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.”

Tech King Quietly Acquires Washington Post

bezos Tech King Quietly Acquires Washington Post

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

That massive thud on Monday was the sound of jaws dropping at the news that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, one of the most venerated newspapers in the US, from the Graham family, which owned it for 80 years. The pricetag of $250 million is almost pocket change to Bezos, representing about one percent of his estimated $25 billion personal fortune. Perhaps that’s why some conjectured that Bezos, who pours millions into pet projects like spaceflight and a clock that will run for 10,000 years, made the purchase for the fun of it.

Media and business pundits will no doubt continue to try to explain, praise, or pan the acquisition. As one observer noted, Bezos and the Graham family eschewed the theatrics that often accompany major announcements where tech sector luminaries are involved. News of the sale went public quietly, initially in a hushed Post staff meeting and with a letter from Bezos posted on the WaPo website.

Well played all around. The understated announcement evinced the Graham family’s sensitivity to the interests and sentiments of gobsmacked Post employees (not to mention investors in the soon-to-be-private media property). For Bezos, whose retail empire began with antiquating the book industry, and who last year predicted the death of print inside 20 years, a more visible PDA – Public Display of Acquisition – might be a tad unseemly.

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for the Graham family and Jeff Bezos of Amazon, for standing back and letting the most significant media acquisition of the year speak for itself.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: When the news you have shouts on its own, tell it in a whisper. Two other major media transactions – the sales of Newsweek and the Boston Globe – occurred at virtually the same time as the Post sale, but does anyone remember? The Post transaction leaves open a lot of questions, stirs emotions, will have far-ranging impact, both in media and tech. By keeping things understated and matter-of-fact, both sides were well served in presenting a “business-as-usual” front on a transaction that is anything but.

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.”

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.

Yahoo Appeals to Its Own Vanity

yahoo logo 600 Yahoo Appeals to Its Own Vanity

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Yahoo! and its recycled ID plan.

Everything old is new again at internet giant Yahoo! Silicon Valley’s wannabe comeback kid announced plans to recycle unused account IDs to free them up for new users – a bone-toss to any user saddled with alphanumeric mouthful like johndsmith12345. “If you’re like me, you want a Yahoo ID that’s short, sweet, and memorable,” Jay Rossiter, Yahoo’s SVP for Platforms, announced on the company’s Tumblr blog.

Not everyone loved the news. Hackerphobes quickly raised concerns that recycling IDs could expose users to identity theft and other security threats. Traditionally account IDs are almost never recycled for fear that hackers can use them to gain access to other, still active accounts. A writer for Wired Magazine who has chronicled his personal experience with a crippling hacker attack called Yahoo’s plan “a spectacularly bad idea.”

Yahoo on the other hand, seeking to inject new enthusiasm into its brand and still fighting a “Your Father’s Internet” reputation,  promised that appropriate security safeguards were in place. But embarrassingly , when pressed, it couldn’t assert that the plan was hacker-proof. Yahoo is now left wiping spam off its corporate face.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Yahoo’s questionable plan and hedgy commitment to user security.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Prepare for the obvious. Coming as it did amid revelations of Internet spying by the government, Yahoo’s pitch to new users seems particularly poorly timed and bound to raise tough questions. Not even a PR magician could salvage what appears to be an ill-conceived, poorly-vetted plan. Besides the legitimate security issues, recycling user IDs seems slightly gimmicky. In the end Yahoo couldn’t vouchsafe on questions of security. The result? Yahoo looked desperate to make a splash and walked straight into a PR blunder.

Cook Keeps Apple’s PR Polished

 Cook Keeps Apples PR Polished

The PR Verdict: “B” (Good Show) for Tim Cook and Apple.

Though its market value has declined by a gasp-inducing one-third since September, Apple remains the most valuable public company in the world. Nearly everyone expects each new Apple product launch or refresh to be a game-changer, so when the company falls short of these outsized expectations, it tends to be publicly punished more harshly than others. As Apple moves inevitably through a period of slower growth and longer product cycles, its need to manage expectations and tend to its well-burnished image takes on greater prominence. PR to the rescue!

CEO Tim Cook, who has performed superbly in the all-but-impossible role as successor to the iconic Apple leader Steve Jobs, is well aware of these imperatives, as is Apple’s best-in-class PR and marketing team. Apple’s annual developers conference, where it typically unveils its latest and greatest, starts next Monday. Cook has been out polishing his Apple in preceding weeks, successfully defending the company in a May 21 appearance before a Senate committee bent on making Apple the poster child for corporate tax avoidance. Last week, at a prominent tech conference, he laid out a less aggressive but still ambitious agenda of product development, strategy, and enhancement for 2013, affirming that Apple has “several more game changers in us” but refraining from promising the iMoon. What the secretive, surprise-loving Apple will unveil next week remains anyone’s best guess. Fortunately, people are still guessing.

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Apple and Tim Cook, for taking care of business when business doesn’t take care of itself. Probably only Steve Jobs himself could earn an “A.”

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Reputation management never ends, but occasionally it takes on heightened importance. Apple responded proactively and aggressively to accusations of tax avoidance and put the blame where it belongs – on the tax code. It did so at a time when its product cycle has slipped ever so slightly back to earth, addressing that with statements tempering specific (and more measurable) short-term expectations while promising bigger, better, shinier things to come. The trick is finding the PR wording that allows everyone to hear what they wanted or expected to hear – not easy, but as Apple’s combined management and PR teams have shown, it can be done.

Is Apple’s PR Bruised?

 Is Apples PR Bruised?What to think of Apple? To hear stock analysts and business anchors talk, one would think Goliath had just taken a severe hit to the head. Apple has been the undisputed giant of tech for so long that the slightest waver on its feet has everyone talking about how the mighty may soon be falling.

True, profits are down – about 18 percent this quarter, and the first decline for Apple in a decade. Speculation that the company might slope downward following the demise of leader Steve Jobs didn’t come to pass immediately, but the birth of competitive, and cheaper, products are starting to pose a threat. And there are no new products coming from Apple, which is bad news for a company that caters to consumers mad for the latest in tech devices.

Another first for Apple is having to borrow money. The explanation? Rather than face taxes on bringing in offshore assets, Apple will take a loan to pay $100 billion to shareholders by 2015, which pleases some, but perplexes others. Bottom line: should Apple be in crisis mode or business as usual?

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Apple. The news isn’t good, but then again it isn’t all rotten.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: A company’s reputation can precede, and quiet, speculation. Apple may be wavering in its long-held number one slot, but one of the company’s priorities has been building a brand. People don’t speak of phones; they talk about iPhones and lead iLives. Consumers still see Apple products as cool and a cut above the rest despite their ubiquity.  While cheaper products may come around, it will take far more than that to put a dent in Apple’s brand loyalty. Apple’s PR should continue to polish its image and brand and let the stock price see-saw of its own accord. Apple’s upward unrelating share price climb had to come to an end at some point. Best thing is to pause and catch a PR breath.

Guest Column: Nokia’s Embarrassing Stumble

 Guest Column: Nokia’s Embarrassing Stumble

The PR Verdict: “D” (PR Problematic) for Nokia. (Pictured: Nokia CEO Stephen Elop)

Last week, Nokia introduced its new smartphones, the Lumia 820 and 920, at a media launch. The biggest selling point? Lumia’s “PureView Camera Technology,” which separates this phone from the rest of the pack. A fancy launch, complete with a promotional video and advertisements, showed images taken using Lumia’s new “optical-image-stabilization” feature (OIS).  The trade press was meant to swoon.

But – whoops – the press noticed that neither the promotional video nor the still images in the ad were taken with the Lumia 920 camera in the phone. Did anyone get photos of Nokia executives’ red faces? But wait, the cringing wasn’t over yet: Nokia was unable to state a date as to when the product would arrive in the market. After all, they’ve been busy… Apparently finding good photos to use for press materials.

The company issued a pro forma apology for the ad, saying that it “should have posted a disclaimer stating this was a representation of OIS only” [emphasis added]. Nokia said that its aim was to show what the Lumia 920′s OIS technology will be able to do once available and apologized for the confusion it caused. No intention to mislead, and yes, “There was poor judgment in the decision not to use a disclaimer,” a Nokia spokesperson told Bloomberg.

The PR Verdict: “D” (PR Problematic) for Nokia. See what can happen in the rush to market products?

The PR Takeaway: Don’t be bullied by the market, and you’ll avoid later embarrassment. Companies need to control their competitive impulses. The smartphone market is driven by quick sales and product differentiation demands; everybody appreciates that. But what is the point in creating demand when the public will find only empty shelves, and the company may be accused of manipulative sales tactics? In this case, further damage was arrested with a quick apology, but in the future, how about a more thoughtful and cautious analysis of reputation risk? After all,  the rule is simple: be careful what you promise and when. That will avoid vividly red faces from showing up in the press.

What else should Nokia have done to avoid this kind of media embarrassment? Give us your PR Verdict!