Comment: Microsoft needs better PR

I don't understand Microsoft's public-relations priorities sometimes. Actually, a lot of times.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

March 17 came and went without a Microsoft press release on the fact that the company delivered Release Candidate 1 of Windows 2000 Beta 3. If I were a Microsoft flack and had been behind the keyboard, I would have proclaimed triumphantly: "Microsoft Delivers First On-Time NT Beta To Testers!" (On second thought, "on-time" is a relative thing. It's on-time only if you are using Microsoft's latest Windows 2000 countdown page as your measure, where the company's been promising RC1 for March 17 and final Beta 3 for April 21 for more than a month now. In the grand scheme, Windows 2000 is years late, literally.)

But instead of shouting good news like this from the rooftops, Microsoft instead is focusing most of its cycles these days on attempting to counter what it claims is negative, sloppy and biased reporting. Now there's a no-win proposition if there ever was one.

Witness last week's concerted effort by Microsoft to blame on the press the fact that it is losing -- in the eyes of many consumers and industry watchers alike -- its current antitrust case with the Department of Justice.

At Local Media Day on campus last week, Microsoft Chief Operating Officer Bob Herbold started things off with his repeated "We're on the side of the angels" claim. "It's wild times in terms of the stories that emerge on a day-to-day basis [from the trial]," he told Seattle area journalists, many of whom have covered the DoJ vs. Microsoft trial from afar.

I have to admit it was hard not to jump out of my seat to counter Herbold's and general counsel Brad Smith's abridged versions of the past five months in court. What about Bill Gates' sudden case of Alzheimer's? Or Dan Rosen's failure to recall the use of the word "browser" at Microsoft during the mid-1990s? What about the botched videotapes? Smith's answer: "We're not entering the academy awards for the best documentary here. We showed the issues involved were extraneous to the case." This was bad. But things got worse. If you didn't happen to catch Salon Magazine's "Fortress Microsoft" piece, it's worth a read. Especially noteworthy are comments by Microsoft spokesman Greg Shaw, who attributes Microsoft's PR problems around the DoJ case to an ill-trained and inexperienced press corps, including "a lot of reporters for whom this is their first big national story."

Shaw couldn't leave well enough alone, adding: "For some reporters in the technology field, this is the first trial or the first policy story they've written about. The fact that both sides are trying to tell their story probably seems overwhelming at times."

It's funny. To me, the problem isn't that both sides are trying to tell their story. It's that one side is not telling its story in a forthright manner.

Microsoft's PR efforts are misguided and getting worse. It's time for a little refresher course on how to deal with the press, I'd say. What are your suggested remedies for Microsoft's PR woes?

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