Tech Giants Sport New PR Tricks

It’s no secret that I used to run marketing for a bunch of technology companies, back in the day. It was a thankless job. Not that I’m complaining … okay, I guess I am. Here’s a little glimpse of what it was like:

One chief executive called my department a bunch of “noise makers.” That was the nicest thing he had to say. My editor refuses to print his more colorful comments.

Another CEO hired me because he could not open his mouth without causing the stock to plummet five or six percent. The guy was a combative jerk with a chip on his shoulder even bigger than his enormous ego. You couldn’t let him loose in public.

As I was presenting a new marketing plan to my fellow executives at a very large tech company, the executive vice president of manufacturing asked, “Why do we even have to waste time and money on this crap?” Oh yes he did.

Truth is, tech giants are not generally known for their public relations savvy. The problem, of course, is that most of their founders and CEOs are techno-geeks of the “if we build it, they will come” variety. PR is simply not in their genetic code.

But lately, it seems a few are beginning to catch on, if not in a clumsy “Isn’t that cute, the baby’s trying to walk and tripping over her own feet” sort of way.

Here are some recent signs of PR life in the tech world. Most of it’s more PR hype than PR savvy, but at least it’s something:

Yahoo: It’s all about Marissa. Why are shares of Yahoo trading two and a half times what they were when Marissa Mayer took over as CEO just over 16 months ago? Three reasons: Alibaba, activist investor Dan Loeb, and Marissa’s PR stunts. Never mind her provocative pose in Vogue (don’t get me wrong: I like the pic, but for a CEO?) or that Gigaom founder Om Malik said, “There’s a lot of attention and PR around Marissa, but their product lineup just kind of (stinks).”

Tesla: Change the conversation. It’s not a coincidence that every time one of Elon Musk’s companies runs into trouble he throws the media a new bone to salivate over.  Last month, on the heels of its third Model S car fire in 6 weeks, Musk said Tesla may develop an electric pickup truck, although that would be at last five years off. Nevertheless, that dominated the news for days. Musk has mastered the art of distraction … not that it takes much, these days.

Amazon: New heights for vaporware. On 60 Minutes, the night before Cyber Monday – the biggest e-commerce shopping day of the year – Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos captured the world’s imagination with his vision of a drone delivery service called Amazon Prime Air. Bezos says it could happen as soon as 2015. The Federal Aviation Administration says 2020 is more like it. Either way, it was a brilliant PR stunt.

Google: Eric’s guide to cheesy PR. In what has got to be the cheesiest move ever by a billionaire S&P 500 chairman, Google’s Eric Schmidt posted on his Google+ page a step-by-step guide on how users can switch from iPhone to Android. In response to Schmidt’s claim that “Many of my iPhone friends are converting to Android,” one reader commented, “Let’s be real Eric … u don’t have any iPhone friends :D”

Microsoft: Hope springs eternal. Waxing optimistic about how the new Windows 8 platform is going to rock the mobile app developer world, Microsoft Windows App and Store GM Todd Brix told Forbes, “Right now, I wouldn’t trade places with anyone in terms of our prospects.” That’s just a little over-the-top considering Windows Phone is a distant third behind iOS and Android, if you ask me.

Samsung: That’s not exactly what we meant. In an attempt to thwart critics of its Galaxy Gear smartwatch (yours truly included), Samsung recently announced it had sold 800,000 of the devices. Turns out, that’s not true. The company later confirmed it had shipped that many to retailers, as opposed to having actually sold them to end-users. And who knows how many of those were backed by promotions and subsidies? Maybe “overhype” doesn’t translate well into Korean. 

Apple: No comment. The famously secretive company has definitely mastered the art of “PR by no PR.” By announcing products on its own timetable at its own events with security so tight it makes the NSA look like Swiss cheese, Apple creates a news vacuum so strong that tiny leaks become big news. My only concern: was fear of Steve Jobs’ wrath the only thing that kept everyone in line? Time will tell.

BlackBerry: Okay, okay, it’s a turnaround. After years of trying to put a smiley face on its disastrous decent from prince to pauper of the smartphone kingdom, newly-appointed interim CEO John Chen is calling BlackBerry what it is: a challenging turnaround. Now that it’s lost most of its market share, market cap, and employees, it’s about freaking time.

Last but not least, after much criticism and handwringing, Twitter, in its own unique style, announced it has added a woman – Marjorie Scardino – to its board of directors. As for all the whiny claims of gender bias at the social media company, tweet this: