Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Microsoft Memo: Some choose radical transparency, some have it thrust upon them

So our grand project in Radical Transparency has hit the streets. It's the cover package of the April issue of Wired, which went on sale this week. The cover, as you may have heard, is a technically ambitious exercise in mylar-craft featuring Jenna Fisher ("Pam" from The Office) in a business suit carrying a sign that says "Get Naked and...". Lift the mylar sheet and she's taking her own advice.

One of the feature stories in the package is a case study by Fred Vogelstein of Microsoft's blogging initiative, which is something I've been really impressed by. Today the company has more than 3,500 bloggers and its corporate messaging has gone from mostly press releases and scripted executive speeches to more of an authentic conversation in public between rank-and-file employees and customers. It's a fascinating shift in culture for a company that was once known for being fanatically obsessed with trying to control its image and messaging. The case study tells the story of how this happened in the most unlikely of places (okay, Apple would be even more unlikely, but you get the point).

Yet the old company culture is not gone, as evidenced by an executive briefing memo from Microsoft's PR firm, Waggener Edstrom, that Vogelstein was inadvertently sent in the body of a scheduling email. At nearly 6,000 words, it's an amazing document and a telling counterpoint to the laissez-faire spirit of the open blogging initiative. Because it so aptly illustrates the parallel open vs. closed cultures that now exist at Microsoft, as in any big company trying to evolve a command-and-control messaging process to an out-of-control age, we decided to post the whole thing online in the spirit of transparency.

The memo coaches the executives on what to say and what not to say. It talks about Vogelstein's interviewing style and possible biases (also how he's "tricky" and "digs for dirt"--the memo cautions the executives to avoid certain paths and to watch out for traps). Here's an example (emphasis in the original):

"He is digging for tension where it does not exist. We have to be hard core on this point and communicate in no uncertain terms the level of executive commitment and support for Channel 9 and 10 [Microsoft's videoblogging efforts]"

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:

"CharlesF met with Chris Anderson during his fall tour in '06, placing the idea that Microsoft is thinking differently and creatively about its outreach....Dan'l Lewin met with Chris Anderson in October and also emphasized the company's work in the arena, pushing the story further...Jeff Sandquist traveled to the Bay Area to meet with Chris and his editorial team. They were highly engaged in Jeff's conversation..."

And so on. By the way, as far as I can tell, everything in the memo is accurate. I also think the executives were very well served by the document; they did indeed stick to their message and they got pretty much the story they wanted. This was also, as it happens, the story I wanted--or was it just the story I thought I wanted because I was so effectively spun by Microsoft's PR machine? The mind reels...

You can read it all here.

[UPDATE: Read Waggener Edstrom's Frank Shaw on their side of the story here]

[UPDATE2: You can read Fred Vogelstein's reaction to "reading my own FBI file" here]

Microsoft Sends Secret Dossier on Reporter, to Reporter

by Fred Vogelstein

Imagine being asked one day, "Would you like to see your FBI file?" You'd say "Yes," right? But then ask yourself a different question: "How will it make you feel to know all that information?"

I recently got about as close as one can get to this experience. While reporting a story on Microsoft's video blogging initiative – something called Channel 9 – the dossier that Microsoft and its outside public relations agency Waggener Edstrom keeps on me accidentally ended up in my email inbox.

As journalistic windfalls go this is about as good as it gets. There I was writing a story about how Microsoft is on the cutting edge of using the Internet to become more transparent, and there in front of me are the briefing documents they are using to manage the story. The timing was so fortuitous that I wondered whether it was intentional. When I told Microsoft about it, they convincingly told me it was not.

But after I was done reading all 5,500 words I no longer felt elated at the prospect of an interesting scoop. I felt downright peculiar. I've been a journalist for more than 20 years and always assumed that the people I interview do as much homework on me as I do on them. So the existence of a document like this didn't surprise me. But that still didn't make it any easier to read lines like, "It takes him a bit to get his point across so try to be patient." I know my long-windedness drives my wife nuts occasionally. I didn't know it had become an issue for Microsoft's pr machine too.

It also was strange to see just how many resources are aligned against me when I write a story about Microsoft. Microsoft set up interviews with the head of Channel 9 while I was in Redmond, it allowed me to follow him and an associate at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, and it allowed me to interview two other executives involved in the project on the telephone.

But it seemed clear from the memo that there were close to a dozen other people involved. Some transcribed the interviews I conducted; others kept notes on my every utterance for clues about what questions I might ask next and ultimately what my story would say; others briefed executives with questions I had asked and suggested good answers. Indeed, if you read the memo closely it's clear that my experience with Microsoft on this story was their end game. For something like six months prior they had been plotting to get Wired to write a story about Channel 9 and had dispatched three executives to meet with editors at the magazine in hopes of setting their hook.

Should I be flattered that they worked so hard, or should I be embarrassed at being co-opted by their spin machine? I'd like to think I would have written the same story no matter what. But now, through the miracle of transparency, you, the reader, get to decide that too.

To read the entire memo click here.

{Update 1) Waggener Edstrom President Frank Shaw's post on the Wired story and on the memo is up. Read it here

{Update 2} Wired Editor in Chief Chris Anderson's post about the Wired story and the memo is up. Read it here

Waggener Edstrom WorldwideRadically Transparent BriefingFrank Shaw of Waggener Edstrom PR

For starters, I am not going to use this space to talk in detail about the Wired story itself. I have my POV of course, and those who live close enough to me to offer me a pint of beer might get it out of me. But the story is out, like any piece of work there are things to agree with and not, and we’ll leave it at that. Or, we can hope that the writer will post his interview notes from all the people he talked to, but I don't think that is likely to happen. :)

Now, let’s talk about the briefing mail now online and the mention in the article of a “confidential dossier of 5,500 words.” Not true – someone is confusing a briefing with a dossier and “confidential” with “not sent to me.”

So read on – there’s nothing surprising or nefarious here, let’s be transparent and take a look. But first, re-read this blog post from January about transparency…it’s pretty relevant. I’ll wait. :)

Right after CES, I wrote about how to do a great interview, offering my perspective on what works and doesn’t, from a PR perspective. Here was my 5th point (bold added):

If it's your first interview with someone, ask for insight. Seriously, I know it sounds a bit self serving, but often the PR person has sat through a ton of interviews and has a pretty good sense of what works best from a style and pace standpoint. Remember, it's in my best interest that an interview go well. If the interview goes south, I'm the one in the room later hearing about it. ;) From the interviewer and interviewee both, it often turns out.

So, now let’s turn the tables and talk about how to prep an interviewee to do a great interview – and you’ll see how a briefing document comes together.

1. Story commences – sometimes with an inbound request, sometimes in conjunction with an event or other news activity. Reporter (usually) has an overall story in mind and a list of people to talk to. It’s not unusual to be looking at as many as 10 interviews for a single story, esp. a feature. The first step from a PR perspective is to draft a document that captures the story premise, who should participate in the interview and some perspective on what supporting points need to be on the table. Then it’s off to the races….

2. Prior to the first interview, you want to make sure the person being interviewed is ready to do a good job. Everybody is different – some people are naturals and can come up with great commentary on the fly, others need more time to think. Must haves include:

a. Story premise

b. Info on news outlet and reporter – circulation, focus, previous articles written, interview style (aka Barbara Walters or Sam Donaldson?)

c. Supporting facts

d. Desired outcome

The key here is that the person is PREPARED for the interview, they have thought about their role and can actually be helpful.

3. Interview happens. Let’s just assume it was good. :) Prior to the next interview, recap the first one! Why? Because you don’t want to waste time on the next sets of interviews plowing the same ground again. If the first person did a good job of explaining the business problem and left a huge hole in discussing the solution, then that next interview better focus more on solution.

4. Repeat as needed. Update story premise and facts along the way for each person being interviewed. As more questions come out, and more interviews take place, the briefings at the end get…long.

Okay, there it is – in the style of the Wired issue, transparency on what goes into briefing.

Seriously, in this case, the interests of a journalist and PR are totally aligned – a great interview is always the best possible outcome. And that doesn’t mean an interview where a spokesperson endlessly repeats key messages – that’s a loss. It’s an interview where the person is prepared to talk, has the relevant data at hand, understands the story premise and his/her role, and doesn’t waste time going over the same territory as a previous interview.

We now return to our regular programming.