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March 27, 2007

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frank shaw

I have a point of view here...come visit the glass house....
http://glasshouse.waggeneredstrom.com/blogs/frankshaw/archive/2007/03/27/radically-transparent-briefing.aspx

Robert Scoble

I wasn't briefed by Microsoft PR and I spent two hours talking with Fred. I didn't find him sneaky or anything. He just asked lots of questions and tried to find out how we did Channel 9 when other companies clearly couldn't (or can't) get it done.

xxdesmus

My friend, what do you expect a PR firm to do? Everything you are reading is exactly what they get paid to do.

steve clayton

There is some eerily familiar stuff in Fred's case study. Microsoft has a growing number of bloggers outside of Redmond which I think is a vital part of the transparency we need. Smart people exist in their droves in the subsidiaries and they have plenty to offer. In the UK my team shamelessly copied Channel 9 with a video blog called Partner-TV as well as regular blogs to talk to and listen to our 35,000 partners. How else do you scale 13 people to an audience that large? We had similar internal scepticism as the Channel 9 team but it vanished as the feedback came in. It’s amazing what happens when you show people that you’re listening. I’ve only been blogging for 9 months or so and recently got the following comments on my blog:

“Steve, I am now beginning to enjoy Microsoft. Previously I , and I suspect millions of others, perceived MS as a leviathan without a heart. No pulse or warmth. Not a human in sight except Bill in front of a cold global software assembly plant staffed by humanoids. By blogging, you and your colleagues have opened up MS to reveal that the innards are indeed made up of warm, people with hearts, with families, have smiles and wow, you do have senses of humour! This is incredible. Who'd have thought that a corporation like MS was human after all!? We do now. All because you are engaging with us at our level and this is a conversation I relate to and like very much. I hope many more do too.”

It blew me away. And then it encouraged me to do more and get more people blogging. Seriously, people thought I was mad initially but now we have growing support from our executive team and the UK bloggers are on the rise. Fred concludes by saying transparency is hard. I agree. I’d counter that the hard things come with greater rewards than the easy things. The reward for me is comments like the one above. It's well worth the effort.

Thomas

Horror! Horror! Companies use P.R. firms to manage their messages to the press! Shock! Awe! Manipulation!
Chris, the naivete is cute.

Josh Bernoff

Chris -- Thanks for providing an opportunity to peek inside the world of technology PR.

We analysts get briefed all the time and it's moderately clear that the PR folks have prepared the technology executives to the utmost.

While it's fascinating to see this from the inside it's not surprising. And I have to admit it now.

I love PR people.

Why?

1. They treat me like I matter and they nearly always get the logistics right. I bet the same is true when the deal with top tier reporters from pubs like Wired.

2. In general, I find the technology executives are doing the best they can because they have been prepared. A loser who can't communicate is still a loser who can't communicate -- his PR handlers can't help. But the rest generally understand, for example, that they're not going to get through their slides, that I have certain specific interests, and that we'd like to get to numbers and decent ideas as quickly as possible. The PR people CAN help them be ready for that.

3. In a crisis (from the company's perspective, when we're about to say something they won't like, or when stuff like the memo you described becomes public), they really help keep their clients as calm as humanly possible, and explain that they can't put the toothpaste back in the tube.

What they do wrong is when somebody makes a stupid mistake -- and unfortunately there are a lot of low-level folks in a position to do that. Like what you saw with the backgrounder being made public.

Also, I could live without the constant drumbeat of irrelevant and meaningless press releases. Could we fix that, please?

/josh

Jeff Sandquist

I also have a point of you and provide some additional background on the story over on my blog. You can view it at http://www.jeffsandquist.com/WiredMagazineArticleOnChannel9.aspx

Thanks again for the lunch Chris.

/pd

how sure are we that this is just a 1off case ??

there could be dossier's for every darn a-lister out there and its not come out yet !!

Matt Peckham

You know, the only thing more disappointing than the fact that PR firms by nature or design are compelled to massage information, is the way folks online sort of shrug and cynically say "Yeah, tell me something I didn't know."

What, you think magazine editors are actually going to challenge paid-for propaganda for the benefit of a readership that (I hope anyway) wants better, when that readership could care less either way?

Anon

So basically, Fred skulked around for months trying to figure out how Channel 9 works and then he went and hooked up (once) with an ex Microsoftie blow hard who takes credit for everything under the sun, and that's Fred's angle?

Microsoft knew full well that Wired was out to dig dirt, and as it happened, they gave him some - but it turned out to be prudent. Vogelstein and Wired must be hard up for some hits on their site cause that dossier was lame. As others have said, it's what PR is paid to do. Makes ya wonder why Microsoft has the 'evil' image that is does, when so many 'writers' are out there misrepresenting the truth.

Anon

If I'm reading this correctly, Wired allowed Microsoft to review a draft of the article. This is not journalism.

Chris Anderson

Anon: You read incorrectly. Microsoft did not read a draft. Quick to hop on the high horse, aren't you?

Rory

Chris -

Disclaimer: I work for Jeff.

"On a personal note, it's kind of freaky to read the memo describe how I was wooed (even manipulated, if you want to think of it that way) into commissioning the piece"

As you noted in the parenthetical statement, you'd have to read into the memo to arrive at manipulation.

My guess is that you know a thing or two about spin. It's not hard to turn any viewpoint we don't like into something offensive.

The way I understand it, you invited Jeff out for lunch. The two of you chatted. You decided on the story.

Is it really any more complicated than that?

You made the choice. Right? I mean, Microsoft didn't.

There are a lot of people who'd like to be featured in Wired. Is it manipulation all the way down the line, or just when it makes a good story?

Sorry. I'm being pissy, but I'd like to think it's understandable. Because of my job (I'm one of the Channel 9 guys), I pay a lot of attention to what people are saying about Microsoft. It gets... *so* tiring to encounter the same old attempts at smearing the company.

Microsoft *has* changed. That doesn't mean we're going to do away with PR people. With some 70,000 employees, I think it'd be a stupid, stupid move. As a previous poster mentioned, PR people are there to help those of us who don't deal with traditional press. Frankly, I think the "angle" taken on this story - with the "leaked" document - is the perfect example of why we have these people.

Yeah. I think it's kind of funny. The story that "reported" on a PR mistake is the same story that should serve as a reminder to always work with PR.

Getting carried away. I do this.

I'll get to the point.

You weren't manipulated. It looks like there was spin on both sides. It's good for your story if it looks like you were manipulated, and it's good for the PR people to take credit for the publicity by positioning the events as all having been part of some effort to get you to agree to the story.

It's very Sirens of Titan.

Of course, Sirens of Titan was *fiction*.

Lisa F.

I don't mean to be snide here, but did your reporters go to journalism school, or not? They teach classes in journalism school on how to do PR -- you learn it there, not business school.

So it's interesting that you and Fred feign naivete. Certainly you must know that a PR firm exists to get stories for a company; their job, if they're doing it well, is to find a story about their client that they think would interest you and your readers, and then give you access to people who can (one hopes) speak believably and honestly about the idea. And to have those people reasonably well prepared about what they're likely to be asked, so that they'll have an answer for you (and, when done well, an answer that goes beyond talking points). This isn't any big secret.

Without PR firms, think how much time you'd spend trying to find the right people in a huge, decentralized organization like Microsoft who would be a) knowledgeable about the topic of your story and b) reasonably well-spoken on it. The PR firm is doing a service -- both for you and for their client -- and you know it.

(and no, I don't work for a PR firm so I'm not spinning for them)

Does this get in the way of true journalism? No, not if the story is interesting to your readers, you solicit points of view from outside the company, and you don't give the company the opportunity to vet your final piece.

Having a prep piece for an interview and updating it as the interviews go on is not a nefarious tactic used only by big brother Microsoft. It's used by almost any company that's ever been involved in speaking to you about a piece -- if they've got a decent PR firm. Hmm, I think it's a tactic used by journalists, too.

If a small tech company had a PR firm that made a mistake like this, would you call it out in the Orwellian terms you're using here?

anon

I wonder how much the PR firm spins their client? Could it be that you weren't wooed into doing the article, but that the PR guys will nevertheless happily take credit for it in the memos and briefings they are preparing for their customer?

Huck

I am honestly just sort of amazed you haven't pulled the original story from the website, or flagged or annotated it in any way in view of what you now know about how you and Wired were being played, managed and nudged. (Like the "vivid example"--since your interviewees were aware you wouldn't quote them much, but would reproduce their images and anecdotes intact--comparing overcoming fear of airplane travel to overcoming fear of blogging, which one can't help thinking comes right out of this playbook.)

The whole things seems like a *much* more interesting story--this sort of We Must Control Every Angle psychology at Microsoft, which still doesn't prevent them from getting poor coverage, since spending countless hours spying on reporters is about all they're proving to have much of a knack for, these days--than the one Microsoft assigned you.

Not to mention that it completely flies in the face of the whole, "We're just lettin' it hang out, trusting people to be smart" line you regurgitated throughout the story.

There's an end to this comment, so thanks for your patience. The end to my comment is this: The fact that Wired hasn't pulled or commented on the story in any clear way, and that your own response to this frankly appalling, gives-you-a-dirty-feeling-to-read-it memo is so tepid and intellectually hesitant, has taught me a lot more about the outsourcing of reporting to the subjects of the reporting under Wired's new regime (I don't know about the old one; apparently more people used to work at Wired then, but maybe it was no better) than I could have learned almost any other way. It's an object lesson.

A object lesson, too, in why, as I reader, I shouldn't waste my time reading this site: I can get a cleaner, purer version of the same 'story' by just visiting Microsoft.com. Except, I obviously have no interest in visiting Microsoft's PR web site.

ragingmime

I think that the public is best served when a skeptical, hardworking, intelligent writer and a crack PR team can have at it.

PR does come in handy... it's often difficult to get good interviews without PR people.

A while ago, I needed to talk to someone about open source bug testing. Novel's Evolution had nothing but a list of developers' E-mail addresses. Mozilla had a PR person who coached one of their engineers and stayed on the line while the engineer and I talked. Guess which one wound up in the story.

WagnerEdstrom is pretty good at pushing you to cover their clients heavily and favorably by feeding you interesting anecdotes and info that's not always too useful to the reader but makes the client look good. It's the job of journalists and editors to spot this crap and make sure it doesn't end up in the story.

It is unnerving to hear that the conversations were taped. Did they let you know that they were taping them? It's common courtesy to let an interviewee know that you're taping them, but I don't know if it works the other way around.

It is unnerving to realize that PR keeps such close tabs on journalists, and in particular the line, "We're pushing Fred to finish reporting and start writing" hit a nerve.

This is distasteful (and maybe a little manipulative), but it's basically PR people doing their jobs. We just need to make sure that writers do their jobs just as well (or better) so that when PR pushes, journalists can push back.

Curtis

Before a job interview, do you consider what you might be asked and try to think of the best answers to possible questions? Before a date, do you think about what the person is like and behave accordingly?

Is this stuff dishonest and manipulative? No! It's disrespectful NOT to do it. So why don't we just assume that every big company is going to polish its image just like any human being?

Where does that leave us? Well, just because they print it in Wired does not make it reliable information. We all suspected from age 4 that we cannot believe everything we read. Now we know it's true. There's no one-stop, quick-fix type substitute for doing your own thinking.

Melvin Yuan

Chris,

Call it "Accidental Transparency" ;)

Josh,

Nice points in defense of PR folks. Thanks!

Katie Delahaye Paine

I think if this were an isolated incident, it would be a great anecdote in the history of PR. Coming on the wake of the New Yorker story on Wal-Mart, I think it has to call into question whether PR and transparency are mutually incompatible. Here's my opinion on the topic:
http://kdpaine.blogs.com/kdpaines_pr_m/2007/03/pr_reputation_f.html

Piotrek

I am wondering how many comments are posted by PR guys here...

Anyway, if you read the "memo", some things, like making somone respond:
["Of course, there was a little something in the back of my head…"]
to a question that is likely to be asked by an interviewer, raise a big question:

How true is everything we figure about Microsoft?

Of course PR are essential, but I think that over-using them (like using PR to clean PR mess), creates a bubble that grows and grows until it meets the sharpness of reality.

(a disapointed MS fan, but still a MS fan)

nobody important

I am not a journalist and I do not belong to a PR company. I am simply one of the many "readers" of news out here in the real world. My thoughts on journalism, and the media in general, is that they always spin their story to suit their needs - the same thing a PR company is hired to do. "Spin" can be outright misinformation, exaggeration, or simply the journalists (innocent or naive) opinion or point of view. It really doesn't matter to me. What matters to me is that I get clear, FACTUAL, and unbiased "news" - if that exists anywhere in the world these days.

I understand the argument that both sides are putting on here and quite honestly, I don't know if I can believe anything any one is saying because of the way news is being reported. As a "reader" I ask that you, the journalists, DO NOT put any spin on your "stories" or you, the PR people, influence in any way what your people say. I'd really like to read what the real people and issues you are reporting about have to say in their own words - without the aid of someone whispering into their ears. If a company can not trust what an employee who is a representative to the press has to say on their own, does he/she really belong with your company? If I get the idea that a journalist is writing anything but what I perceive to be fact, then I will stop reading that writer's stories.

It seems it's all about ratings and readship (numbers) and not about reporting the news to us, your readers who like the truth and not just a "good story". For that, we have libraries.

Thank you all for your time.

MarcLord

While in a product group at MS I had opportunity to work with WagEd staff on press releases, what-if positioning, and damage control. WagEd is great, and they hire people who are great at PR. However, as one WagEd manager remarked, "I worked 5 years for the governor of State X. We would've gotten a release like this out in 2 hours, and we've been working on it for 2 weeks."

It is possible to spend too much time on PR, and it is possible to turn executives of a company into Talking Point Robots. It's possible doing so ends up hurting their ability to create products and do business. Which doesn't do much for the share price.

Anon

The people cracking Chris for his "naivete" are simply missing the point, and the PR firms who employ them probably are too. It's not that people don't know that this stuff has been done for years. The point is that this shit simply does not fly anymore. What was standard fair yesterday won't necessarily work tomorrow, thus the defense that "this is all SOP" is a weak one. Talk about naivete.

What used to be of high value--shaping the message of the mainstream media--is now so easy that anyone can do it. It's not that the mainstream media don't matter anymore...they matter as much now as they ever did. The point is that it's trivially easy to shape what they cover and the tone in which they do it. Waggener Edstrom spent 6000 words and hundreds of hours of staff time on message control and a single e-mail trumped the whole thing.

How much money did the Kerry campaign spend? How much did George Allen spend? Both message trains were derailed for very, very little money. SCO lost to GrokLaw. ExxonMobile lost to RealClimate.org and a documentary. The era in which big-dollar PR is worth big dollars is rapidly drawing to a close. Microsoft illustrates this dramatically. On one hand you have 3,500 rank-and-file bloggers creating goodwill for an embattled company. On the other you have a few highly-paid PR guys burning that goodwill as fast as their retainer.

Adam Zand

Social Media PR guy checking in - I'd question that you were "wooed, manipulated" at all. Seems like you were given access and context to help you do your job (and serve your readers). The rest of the post (and comments above) brings up some interesting areas.

I've shared briefing sheets with journalists before and after meetings. Couple of years ago, a reporter with Military & Aerospace Electronics was flattered that we researched his background (including education) and developed briefing notes that would give our lunch meeting structure, depth and insight into a military customer implementation.

Related note: On starting our agency work with Computerworld magazine, Topaz Partners sent all writers/editors their Bacon's MediaMap profiles (the database most PR folks use). They laughed, edited and appreciated the ability to share their real needs and policies with PR folks. I'll do the same for any reporter who wonders why they get similar bizarre references in the occasional spam pitch.

Cheers, Adam

dan tynan

chris:

thanks for posting about this. as a tech journalist with 20+ years' experience, a couple of things jumped out at me in the Wagged memo. (And no, it was no surprise to me that they prepared such a document, though the length and depth of it were a bit appalling.)

the first concerns this comment on page 3 of the document: "We anticipate an advance draft of the piece by mid-March with the final hitting newsstands at the close
of March for the April edition."

this implies that Wired let Wagged/MS see the story before it hit print -- something no reputable publication would do. did you? if not, where did Wagged/MS get the impression that you would?

the second thing that jumped out was "We’re pushing Fred to finish reporting and start writing."

how in god's name did Wagged decide it was Fred's editor? where did that come from?

what disturbs me most about this whole episode is not the content of the dossier as much as the context; it was as if Fred and Wired were collaborating with Wagged and Microsoft -- from the initial pitch to the final edit.

I love Wired. I read it religiously. So please tell me that this isn't true.

thanks.

dt

Chris Anderson

Dan,

As I mentioned in a previous comment, Microsoft did not get an early draft of the story. We faxed it to them as home subscribers were beginning to get their copies. WagEd was simply confused about the dates. I can't really explain the "pushing Fred to finish reporting" bit, other than even if they did suggest as much to Fred, I'm sure he ignored them. I'm his editor, not them.

Chris

tom s.

In the middle of a piece from Nicholas Carr, here is Google-style Radical Transparency at work.

Asked how it uses water and electricity at its sites, Google executive Rhett Weiss said, "We're in a highly competitive industry and, frankly, one or two little pieces of information like that in the hands of our competitors can do us considerable damage. So we can't discuss it."

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It's interesting that you've mentioned there is an open vs closed culture at Microsoft – I've been thinking this for quite some time. It's evident through some of their products that there is this happening. It might be a good balance, but when it comes to major software (aka VISTA) I think they have probably leaned more to closed than open. I don't mean that Windows ever needs to be open-source, only that the idea of having 4 different versions (1 of which doesn't come with 'extra's' such as nice ways for the windows to close aka. Windows Aero) shows a bit of that corporate attitude still stuck in there. I was hoping that they would ditch the whole 'let's release multiple versions of the same product, and make people pay for cooler features, rather than stronger security etc.' thing would have been ditched by now.

TMaxim

It's very interesting that you've mentioned there is an open vs closed culture at Microsoft – I've been think this for quite any time.

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The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

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