Oracle still struggles with media

It seems that Oracle has managed to upset members of the media. It's un-necessary in the modern world but it happens.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

Two years ago I wrote about Oracle's approach to bloggers. I said:

While I applaud Oracle’s attempt at bringing itself up to speed with other enterprise applications’ vendors, it is going about this in the wrong way.

How much has changed on the last two years? Precious little. If anything, I'd say the situation has deteriorated. Where there was a stated intent to have a program in 2008, this year there was none that I could discern. But it doesn't stop there.

Vinnie Mirchandani was clearly stung when, along with myself and others we were at first allowed to attend a customer session and then told to leave. Having been there at the time and seen the heavy handed manner in which the ARs handled the situation I can understand his discomfiture. For me it wasn't the first time I've been tossed out of a meeting and I doubt it will be the last. Steve Mann aired the issue some more in terms that underscore the ire felt at the time.

The day afterwards, certain analyst and media colleagues added their grumbles, saying that access to senior executives is more difficult or non-existent. The days of Larry Ellison taking a lone chair in a room full of media and saying: "What do you want to know?" seem but a distant fond memory.  So what was the problem?

To her great credit, Karen Tillman, VP Oracle communications reached out to both Vinnie and I and said she'd like a chat. As a courtesy to Karen, I won't get into the minutiae of that conversation except to repeat that independently of one another, Vinnie and I shared the Workday experience and suggested why that worked.

Karen for her part explained that customers are often reluctant to be highlighted. That's perfectly true and is not unique to Oracle. This need not be an issue because any round table/Q&A or other such meeting can be covered by the Chatham House Rule which says:

"When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed".

This works well because it often allows a much freer exchange than if one or other party has to concern themselves with something they might later regret. At the same time, it still allows media to get the stories out in a credible manner should they so choose. The irony is that Oracle had set up customer Q&A for press with selected customers. Is there an artificial distinction among customers that is eluding me?

It is no secret that Oracle operates in a controlling manner and that is entirely its choice. But the view of many who spoke to me is that the company is losing sight of the reality surrounding today's media. The artificial distinctions between analysts, consultants, press and other commenters is an artefact of the past. It is not the modern way. Where in the past analysts would barely deign to give a press person the time of day, we mingle freely with no thought to perceived pecking orders, position or what not. Analysts Tweet their impressions way ahead of their more polished reports. We all have something to learn from one another and it is in that spirit that we communicate as equals. A few examples:

A Gartner analyst tweeted that he hoped to find time to catch up. A Forrester analyst shared thoughts on Oracle's approach to cloud computing, yet another offered a cheery wave as we passed each other in a hotel lobby. These are the norm and not the exception. And while press colleagues remain competitive around stories, we have no difficulty in sharing experience. We are natural chatterboxes.

Oracle has a problem coping with the tone of some things it sees and I am certainly a culprit for raising hackles, sometimes in acid terms. Be that as it may. There's nothing I might write that I would not be prepared to defend in any face to face meeting. Better to be a fool and learn than a silent dunce. But as I explained, does the company really believe it is any different when we've left the meeting room and are comparing notes?

Some will say that Oracle is no different to Apple but for one crucial difference: it seems that Apple can get people gleefully coming back for more. Oracle (and other enterprise vendors' customers) want to know if they are really getting value for the millions they are asked to spend. That difference is important because as we see on these pages, get it wrong and your business can end up in a world of pain.

As Vinnie and I walked down 3rd Street, San Francisco he said something which needs repeating: "If we don't call them out then who will?"

Those of us who value our independence and want to see a win-win for both vendors and customers believe it is right to both praise and question any vendor. There are no free passes on our side of that fence but then I'd like to think that among the negative there is both reason and balance. When you bring us in you take the rough with the smooth in the full knowledge that we're doing what we believe to be our job. In my case I always say the same: I want to stand in the shoes of the buyer and ask the questions they need answering. That should be a signal to impress. Sadly that's not always the case.

The pity of it is that readers will never hear what happened. For all I know, customers could have been raving about what Oracle is delivering. Or they may have been critical. Or both. Is it really so bad to share the real experiences of those who live with the consequences of their buying decisions?

When a company believes it can control messaging to the point where only the positive emerges then it is in trouble. No rational person believes that story and to think otherwise strikes me as an unsustainably cynical position that leaves me deeply suspicious. It should not surprise then that certain user group representatives are more than happy to develop and deepen relationships with those of us who do stand up. As example, I asked one senior user group person whether I could ping the occasional email. "I'd be delighted," was the response. Does Oracle (and others who choose the same path) see the contrast or where this goes? I hope so.

Editorial standards