Microsoft Progresses

This delightful story, by Fred Vogelstein, about Microsoft from Wired magazine tells how the company has genuinely opened up and become much more transparent in the Internet Age. I see this process as part of the change from the 20th century media environment where broadcast and print media had a media monopoly to the new, more transparent, Internet media environment. Here is Wired’s editor in chief, Chris Anderson, describing the change Fred Vogelstein found:

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.

If you read Vogelstein’s article there is no doubt that this process is real and that dialog between Microsoft and its 3rd party developers and customers has improved tremendously with the Channel 9 and Channel 10 initiatives. Real employees are videoed and put right on the Net talking spontaneously about real issues. This initiative did scare the PR and legal people at first but had enough support from the upper reaches of the company to be allowed to go forward and prosper. Here Vogelstein describes the ongoing tension between the new and old styles:

In the wake of Channel 9′s success, Redmond is still struggling to find a balance between openness and control. Just before he left the company last year, Scoble posted a video of Robert Fripp, the legendary King Crimson guitarist, recording sounds to be used in the new Windows Vista OS. The post prompted a flood of calls from reporters to Microsoft’s PR team, which was unprepared for the onslaught. They were furious. “It was great PR for Microsoft, but PR people hate surprises,” Scoble says. In fact, they forced him to shelve a second Fripp video recorded in May 2006.

That for me is the issue in corporate blogging: the balance between openness and control. I’ve previously made the case for this balance in corporate blogging here and here. The change in the media environment has ended the kind of information control that was possible before the Internet, and we have learned that an interactive relationship between employees and customers can actually help a company. Some companies have tried to prevent any blogging. I blogged here about a newspaper’s unsuccessful attempts to stifle employee blogs. And here about how one outspoken blogger has made himself unemployable. There is a place for confidentiality in business and more transparency is not always the answer. It is a matter of learning what can and cannot be profitably shared with the public.

Overall it is a great success story for Microsoft who have managed to be more transparent in ways helpful to themselves and thier customers, but there is a kicker. As he was preparing his article Vogelstein got a surprise e-mail from Microsoft.

But its efforts to be transparent go only so far. Someone at Microsoft unintentionally emailed me the confidential dossier the company keeps on reporters writing stories about it (presumably a common practice among big corporations). My file ran to 5,500 words and included all the angles I had been pursuing (along with suggested responses to my questions), the people outside the company they thought I had talked to, detailed background on Wired and how it has covered Microsoft, and notes on me and my interviewing style. “We need to reinforce with Fred that these efforts [Channels 9 and 10] are a natural extension of the company’s DNA,” the file reads. “Microsoft has been using a wide variety of communications mechanisms to reach out to developers since the days of yore (to read entire memo click here). This is simply the latest manifestation of those efforts.” The irony is thick. While working with me on a story about its newfound openness, Microsoft and its PR agency were furiously scurrying behind the scenes to control the message. One thing about transparency is clear: It’s harder than it looks.

Yes it is , but when I think about it I believe Microsoft is doing very well with their new approach despite their blunder because no one yet knows the right balance between openness and control. Of course it doesn’t look good when a company outs itself in this way, but Vogelstein keeps it in perspective. It is presented as an ironic footnote rather than made to be the heart of the story. He deserves great credit for not headlining it. On the other hand, good luck to the PR folks trying to convince anyone that openness is in Microsoft’s DNA. Still, if you read Vogelstein’s article it is clear that the forces for more transparency were strong enough to successfully change how the the company related to the world. And they made it work. You just can’t get the kind of reaction cited below to a traditional press release (Quote taken from comments to Wired editor Chris Anserson’s piece linked above):

“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.”

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