Tom Pilla: Spreading the word

Microsoft's general manager for UK PR is on a mission to get his firm to engage more with the British public. Sara Luker reports.

Tom Pilla: 'London is the global media capital'
Tom Pilla: 'London is the global media capital'

Life is about to get busier for Tom Pilla, general manager of UK PR at Microsoft. It emerged last week that the computing giant is to sue retailer Comet for allegedly making tens of thousands of unauthorised CDs of its Windows operating system and selling them to customers.

The case will not worry 44-year-old Pilla, however - after 16 years at Microsoft he has been there, done that and bought the operating system. If you were to cut him, he would bleed Microsoft.

So what has kept him in the corporate clutches of the tech giant? 'I would argue that there isn't an industry that values PR more than technology does,' he says. 'It relies on word of mouth and PR is critical to that. Plus, Microsoft truly values PR and what it brings to the business.'

Pilla's PR style has certainly impressed his colleague of 15 years Adam Sohn, senior director for comms at Bing and MSN: 'Tom is a natural collaborator and leader. He's just as willing to do big strategic thinking as he is to roll up his sleeves and work on tactical stuff.'

Researching Pilla is not an easy task. His name may come up in a Google, sorry Bing, search, but only as a Microsoft spokesperson - even his LinkedIn is on a private setting. 'I am private by nature,' he explains. 'And I'm a traditionalist I guess. PR is about the brand, never about the PR person.'

Which rather raises the question of why agree to a personal profile in PRWeek? 'We need to do more to engage with people in the UK and I thought it would be great to be in the first issue of 2012 to set the wheels in motion,' he says.

Most of Pilla's 16 years of service were spent at Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Washington, until a cocktail party proposition turned his head.

Ali Perkins, head of UK PR at the time, approached Pilla at the event and asked him to cover her maternity leave.

That was in September 2010 and while Perkins has returned in a part-time director role, Pilla has retained the UK head role. Perkins says: 'Tom truly understands the business, knows everyone and how to get things done. He is very self-aware and unassuming, so asks lots of questions to really understand what is best for the UK market.'

Pilla describes his management style as open, honest and direct. In front of a journalist, however, he is cautious, considered and tiptoes around questions with the finesse of a ballroom dancer.

His highly attuned sense for politics is no accident. After majoring in history, political science and comms at school in Philadelphia, Pilla volunteered to work on Republican candidate Joe McColgan's bid for the United States Congress in 1990 and ended up as his press secretary.

The contact with the press and being quoted almost daily gave Pilla a taste for public affairs. Even though McColgan's bid to get to Washington failed, Pilla went there anyway.

Despite the worsening economy of the early 1990s, he managed to secure employment with public affairs firm Bonner & Associates.

A year later, Pilla was working for PR agency Ketchum. During his time there, he worked his way up from account co-ordinator to be a vice-president. His hard work attracted Microsoft and in late 1995 his 16-year love affair with the firm began.

His time at Microsoft has been hugely varied; something he believes has kept him interested and mirrored his time agency-side.

One task saw him defend Microsoft when the United States Department of Justice filed civil actions against the firm. The case, in the mid-90s, alleged that Microsoft abused monopoly powers in the bundling of its Internet Explorer web browser software with its Windows operating system. 'My DC experience came in handy during the case,' Pilla says. 'And it led to the first formation of a public affairs team at Microsoft.

'It was an intense time and I learned a huge amount about crisis comms, reputational management and public affairs under such tight scrutiny.' Pilla adds that Microsoft itself is now a more mature company and has learned from that case.

Although Pilla naturally misses his family and friends in the US, he is in no hurry to go back. He is quick to correct his Americanisms and has even been banned by his team from saying 'awesome'.

'Coming to the UK has added a whole new dimension to my career,' he says.

'I believe this is the best place to be a PR professional - London is the global media capital. The UK has a real thirst for news that the States doesn't have.'

He particularly loves the history of the capital and travelling around the UK, and has also become a fan of Premier League football team Sunderland. His friend Margaret Byrne is the CEO of the club.

Professionally, on the other hand, there is still work to do. 'I haven't scratched the surface here yet,' he says. 'My aim is for Microsoft to really engage with people in the UK. I want us to be more in the faces of consumers and target those that have our products. I can't tell you how much it bugs me when I see people using 11-year-old products, as they could be having much improved Microsoft experiences if they were to upgrade or download an update.'

One senses that, if only time allowed, Pilla's dedication to the cause would see him happily go to every house and business and install the upgrades himself.

CV
 

2012 General manager UK PR, Microsoft
2010 General manager UK PR (maternity cover), Microsoft
2008 General manager, corporate comms, Microsoft, Redmond, US
2006 Senior director, Microsoft
2003 Director, Microsoft
1996 PR manager, Microsoft
1995 Vice-president, Ketchum PR, Washington DC
1991 Account co-ordinator, Ketchum PR

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

I'm hoping it's this article. Actually, it was getting hired by Microsoft.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Professionally, I have many people to whom I owe a great deal. I had great managers at just about every stage of my career and learned that people often model their behaviour on their managers - good and bad. I have been very lucky to have closely studied great managers and leaders at Microsoft.

What advice would you give to people climbing the career ladder?

Don't make that your sole goal. Focus on what you are passionate about, do it well and the career will normally take care of itself.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

An understanding of the broad and strategic role PR can and should play, thinking three steps ahead, the ability to roll up their sleeves to get the job done and, generally, being smarter than me.

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