Nicola Taylor is determined to help Microsoft recapture its youth

The director of PR for Microsoft UK is helping to implement a fresh strategy for the veteran software giant. Lynsey Barber reports.

In the comms hot seat: Taylor is building a relationship with consumers
In the comms hot seat: Taylor is building a relationship with consumers

At nearly 40 years old, Microsoft is in danger of becoming the middleaged dad at a tech party populated by teenagers.

The firm's PC software dominance no longer provides an assurance that the firm will remain relevant in a mobile, socially connected cloud world.

Step in UK PR director Nicola Taylor, to help the ageing Microsoft restyle itself, shed a few pounds and recapture its youth.

A fresh strategy, unveiled by CEO Steve Ballmer, to bring its diverse business together is a holistic approach wholeheartedly welcomed by 44-year-old Taylor.

'One strategy and one company focused on what the customer wants, not what we want to give them,' is how Taylor sums up the new vision. 'Anyone in comms knows you need to start the conversation from what the audience cares about, rather than what you care about,' she says.

How the firm communicates and listens, she explains, is being turned on its head: 'We are at the forefront of the new direction for the company. Certainly for the next two years, the plan is to show people the new Microsoft, rather than the Microsoft people think they know.

'That means offering people products and services to which they can have an emotional attachment.'

An extensive external and internal search preceded her promotion, from corporate head to the firm's top UK comms role in February, to fill the boots of Microsoft veteran Tom Pilla, who moved to a wider European role. It has given Taylor a solid mandate that she likens to a politician gaining a majority vote. It is clear Taylor's mission now is to rally a similar public vote of confidence in Microsoft - no small challenge.

The tech giant's public perception is neatly summed up by the polar reactions received when she tells people where she works. 'Often, encouragingly, people say "wow". Others say: "God, your stuff's shit." Then you discover they are running XP, a 12-year-old operating system. It's like driving a 12-year-old car,' she laughs.

Trying to achieve that breakthrough in a sector dominated by the next big thing is a tough ask. Journalists, let alone consumers, can be unaware of what some of Microsoft's products can do. 'We assume everyone knows, but they don't,' she says. 'We need to do a better job of that, but that's where social comes in, building a relationship directly with consumers.'

The make-or-break narrative much loved by the media, particularly for tech product launches, is not something that keeps Taylor awake at night.

'We've been in the game for a long time and much has evolved and changed. Rome wasn't built in a day and things move quickly. I believe we're starting to see competitors now ...', she pauses before adding with carefully chosen words, '... one might say, the fairy dust on their products might not be as thick as maybe it once was.'

However, events like the Windows 8 and Surface launch at the end of last year, she admits, 'were more negative than we would have wanted or expected'.

'The tide is turning,' she insists, confident that Windows 8.1 will receive a much more positive response. Taylor is also confident the pre-Christmas Xbox launch will 'blow people away', despite the initial launch being widely regarded as something of a PR disaster when details were first released earlier this year.

All judgements should be reserved for 'when people have their hands on the controller saying "Xbox on"', she says with the confidence of a poker player waiting to reveal a winning hand.

With the console currently being 'stripped back, examined down to every last nut and reassembled', Taylor's team is 'digging in deep' for the pre-launch PR with the core gaming audience.

However, life at Microsoft is not just about consumer launches. Perhaps its most significant headlines of the year have been related to its involvement, along with other tech firms, in the US government's PRISM security surveillance programme.

On this subject, while surprisingly happy to address the problem directly, there is little Taylor is able to say. It complies with US and UK law, she reiterates, and has a responsibility both to users and law enforcement. Along with other tech firms, Microsoft has called on the US attorney-general to allow it to be more transparent on the matter. Discussions are 'ongoing', but on this issue it is evident the comms team's hands are tied.

Taylor's career spans some of the biggest tech firms, in-house and with agencies on both sides of the Atlantic. Looking ahead, she sees the increasing crossover between comms and marketing functions as an 'interesting direction in which to go'.

'Looking at the marketing team, I believe that one day there will be a role for a PR person like me or a comms person with that wider breadth,' she speculates.

Microsoft chief marketing officer Philippa Snare says Taylor's straight- talking approach and bigger-picture outlook are her main attributes.

'Nicola's not for the faint-hearted,' says Snare. 'She's direct, but in a comms role that's critical. Everyone knows where they stand with her and people like that clarity. A lot of people warm to her and she becomes their counsel. She's confident that she know her stuff, but not in a cocky way.'

While competitors face an awkward adolescence, Taylor is determined the pipe and slippers can wait and that Microsoft remains the life and soul of the tech party for many decades to come.


2013 Director of PR, Microsoft UK

2008 Head of corporate PR, Microsoft UK

2007 Director, Cohn & Wolfe, London

2006 Senior vice-president, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, San Francisco

2002 Director; senior vice-president, GCI London and San Francisco

2000 PR manager, Vignette Corporation

1999 PR manger, Oracle

1995 Senior account director, Bite

1990 Account director, Text 100


What was your biggest career break?

Getting hired by Text 100. To get the job, I had to do a presentation using LANs - a function of which I had no knowledge. Halfway into it, one of my big clip-on earrings flew across the room, but I kept going. Years later, I was told that I got the job because I wasn't fazed by the incident. Someone took a chance on the girl whose earring fell off.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Philippa Snare. She's phenomenal. She's always herself and authentic.

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

Be prepared for setbacks. We expect, especially in agencies, a career trajectory of promotions, but sometimes you are not ready. When you do get knocked back, reflect on where you might have gone wrong and think about how you can get back on track.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

Lust for life. I like people to have the energy to learn.

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