There's little room for the bunker mentality in today's corporate communications world
When controversy hits, a company's typical response in the past may have been to get everyone on the same message before facing the public. Phones could go unanswered as the organization prepared its singular response to the issue at hand for journalists and the public.
But in the new world of online communications, there is a burgeoning group that feels a company is better off being honest about the divergence of opinions that lie under the corporate surface.
In late April, employees at Microsoft used their blogs to externally debate a stance the company took, with some publicly criticizing their CEO's decision and threatening to leave the company. This development shed light on how the software giant responds to controversy and how not all employees are willing to get behind corporate policy. And in the process of this transparency, some believe the company has paradoxically proven its togetherness.
When Microsoft decided to withdraw support for a Washington state bill 1515, which would have prohibited discrimination based on "sexual orientation" in insurance, employment, and housing matters, some of its legions of employee bloggers took to their websites to blast the company for what they alleged was caving to the religious right or support the company for remaining neutral in a divisive situation.
Influential blogger Robert Scoble, whose position at Microsoft is "technological evangelist," blasted his employer, saying, "One of the reasons I came to Microsoft is because of its very strong stance on human rights. The fact that Microsoft is even in this position makes me want to leave and join a different company that won't be pushed around by religious folks. Is that the message you want to send?"
He even posted CEO Steve Ballmer's internal memo, after the PR department gave him permission, and encouraged his readers to post their thoughts in the comment thread.
Scoble went on to link to another employee whose blog was critical of Microsoft's handling of the matter. In the comment thread of that blog entry, another Microsoft employee opined on the matter, and provided a link to his own blog.
Corporations are getting used to the fact that criticisms can and will flow unabated online. Companies that produce their own corporate blogs and allow comments are almost guaranteed to get some negative reactions. And the environment is entirely too expansive and quick moving for companies to attempt to control independent dialogue. At best, they can respond to the criticisms.
Companies, however, are able to control the actions of their own employees. Some bloggers have lost their jobs due to various blog-related infractions, and many familiar with employment law interpret that employees have little recourse should something they write on their blog causes their employer to fire them.
An April 18 New York Times article explored the issue, pointing out that most states have 'at will' provisions, which means that both employees and employers can end employment without "evident reason."
Annalee Newitz, a policy analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Times, "There really are no laws that protect you."
But Microsoft's approach to the employee blog phenomenon has allowed its workers to write critically about the company without disciplinary action.
Scoble also chided Microsoft's marketing team for how it launched a website promoting its improved search capabilities. But he is also ebullient about many things, and is popular because many feel he is honest about his opinions and is not interested in merely regurgitating corporate messaging.
While the corporate PR team does not vet the blogs, many are hosted on a company site, blogs.msdn.com. And media requests for Scoble's opinions are handled by Microsoft agency Waggener Edstrom.
Microsoft declined to discuss the controversy or its employee bloggers, but Peter McKiernan, senior product manager for the developer and platform evangelism group, told PRWeek in January that the company saw "blogging as a great opportunity for direct and deep two-way conversations with developers and customers."
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported on May 3 that Bill Gates brought up employee bloggers in an address to a conference of business writers.
"I'd say overwhelmingly it's good. It does raise lots of questions.... Now you have thousands of spokespeople and being off the cuff is part of the whole charm of the thing," the paper reported Gates saying.
Gates does not maintain a blog, but the boss of Scoble's immediate superior does. That person, Vic Gundotra, GM of the developer platform and evangelism group, supported Microsoft's decision and wrote a post rebutting Scoble's commentary.
Gundotra wrote that Ballmer and Gates have often gone beyond the minimum anti-discrimination policies at Microsoft and that the company made the right decision in this case.
He wrote, "Should a CEO pick sides on an issue that is so divisive? Does being 'inclusive' and 'diverse' suddenly stop when it involves views that are different than the ones we hold?"
Andy Lark, former VP of global communications and marketing at Sun Microsystems and a prolific blogger, says, "Should a company be airing its dirty laundry in public?" But he continues that such a question is part of the old way of thinking. He says that the internal discord and memo would have eventually found their way to the public through a leak to the media.
Lark says that instead of CNET or the New York Times getting the memo exclusively, it's an employee blogger who now breaks it.
"The dialogue always seeps into the broader market," Lark says. "The smart companies understand that controlling conversations are much harder than participating in them. Microsoft is [part] of the dawn of companies that are allowing the dialogue to take place in the marketplace."
Lark says that allowing a diversity of views and opinions "demonstrates the richness of the conversation in the company."
"It lets people see the real Microsoft," Lark says.
Lark says that today's employees do not merely work at companies; they join them and wish to get actively involved in becoming the public face of the company.
And these empowered employees find the debate enriching, as if it were a benefit provided by its employer.
In a follow-up blog entry entitled "A private discussion in the public square," Gundotra wrote, "Clearly being more transparent ... has helped Microsoft."
But he wondered if every discussion should be blogged and whether "two siblings having a heated debate can reflect poorly on the family."
While leaving that question unanswered, he signed off by writing, "This is really an amazing place to work."