ANALYSIS <b>Google's IPO</b>: Google must learn to deal with more scrutiny after IPO

As Google prepares to go public, its IPO raises questions about how it will handle any negative press and if it'll keep its independent image.

As Google prepares to go public, its IPO raises questions about how it will handle any negative press and if it'll keep its independent image.

Google can search high and low for clues to what life will be like post-IPO. But the best answer might be found in a box of glazed donuts. Krispy Kreme's post-IPO life was a cakewalk. In the eyes of the media and analysts, the company could do no wrong. Its success was admired. But when revenue recently fell and the company blamed the low-carb craze, investors and financial analysts snapped back, blaming management for not anticipating market changes. The search-engine giant would do well to heed the do-nut maker's first big black eye, says Paul Rand, director of Ketchum's global tech practice. "While Google is making its numbers, it will call the shots and determine how it wants to communicate," says Rand. "But the moment it falters, it better be careful. It's inevitable it will have to come back down to Earth at some point." And everyone - from the press and analysts to rivals like Microsoft and Yahoo! - will be waiting. "The good stories are easy to manage," says New York Times senior writer John Markoff. "But if the competition comes after them, if revenues decline and they lose market share, it will get very messy. It could be Netscape all over again." The two main reputation issues Google's IPO raises are how it will handle the first bout of bad news and whether it will be able to maintain its maverick image. So far, it has done a good job of crafting that image and has largely gone without facing any backlash or negative press. Becoming more open Plenty of other companies, like Salesforce.com and Nanosys, are going public. But Google's IPO filing dominated business news for days, with pages upon pages of giddy ink delving into everything from the lives of the founders to the intricacies of the IPO - coverage we haven't seen since the highest highs of the dot-com boom. The SEC filing included a cocky preamble from founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. "Google is not a conventional company," it said. "We do not intend to become one." In defiantly maintaining that the company will not alter its quirky practices (such as focusing on long-term results - that's quirky these days), Page and Brin practically dared people not to invest in their company. But, will they be able to maintain this attitude when they are beholden to Wall Street? Certainly the company will have to be more open. Google was a fascinating story for the media even before the speculation began about a possible IPO. But the company was in absolute control of what it wanted to talk about, and to whom it wanted to talk. Now everyone will want a look under the hood to see what makes everything from the technology to its profitable business structure tick. "Everything from financial information to business data to the business strategy will have to be public," says Henry Gomez, VP of corporate communications at eBay. "They won't be able to say 'no' when a reporter calls. There's a ton of disclosure that comes with going public, and with that, a ton of risk factors that companies in [Google's] position must learn how to deal with. There's a huge learning curve to deal with." Markoff says that over the past several months, he has seen an increased willingness by Google to speak more openly, but notes that the company is largely secretive, something he says reflects more on the founders than on the PR team. Google will have to serve two masters, as public companies do - investors and everyone else. The company also will have to contend with retail investors, who will flock to the stock with dot-com dreams of getting rich overnight and will look for and demand continual communications from Google. "The problem is that retail investors want to hear constant news and hyped-up news and when they don't get it, they become critical of the company," says Bud Grebey, former VP of corporate affairs for the defunct Webvan. "Google will have to be more responsive to the market factors, and if company X comes out with a competing product, and Google's stock takes a hit, that is something that can spiral quickly and really take hold with those short-term retail investors." Dealing with negative press So far, the only real example of a PR brush fire that the company has had to deal with - and it didn't do that very well - was the announcement of its new e-mail offering. Some decried Gmail, which would have computers scan e-mail for key words to help match relevant text ads, as an invasion of privacy. "It was a very good story to tell," says Charlene Li, a principal analyst with Forrester Research. "They just didn't tell it very well." It was a rare misstep. "They've never really had much bad news," adds Jim Louderback, VP and editor-in-chief of Ziff Davis Media's internet properties. "There may be a skeleton or two in the closet. It will be interesting to see how they handle that, and what they'll do when the negative news does arise." Li adds that Google's PR team is strong and should be able to anticipate possible news and issues. Another issue, says Gartner research director Allen Weiner, is that the company might find itself rebranding. If Google keeps focusing on itself as a search company, then it will need to hone in on the power, utility, and technology of search, says Weiner. But he doesn't believe it will go in that direction. Google is and will become a larger media company, along the lines of Yahoo! or MSN, he says, as it continues to develop new services, such as Gmail and Froogle, its shopping website. But whatever it does, it will have to brand itself fast, as competitors will be fine-tuning their own brands as Google goes public. "I would suspect they will try to set the market agenda," says Blanc & Otus president and CEO Greg Spector. "They aren't going to leave that to Yahoo! and Microsoft. And I fully expect them to maintain their counter-culture image. Their whole approach to the offering is different." But Google can only do so much, asserts Louderback. By going public and exposing some secrets, Google will lose a bit of its "mystique" and "pizzazz." So the company should really focus on new products from its labs and push those innovations, such as Gmail, Froogle, and Orkut, its online community. "They're doing a lot of great, innovative things in those labs," says Louderback. "They need to focus on [differentiators] like that to help tell their story." "Controlling your brand and image has more to do with storytelling," adds Gomez. "You need a plan to do that. Whether you're public or private, you still have to have a road map. Going from private to public doesn't necessarily mean it's easier or harder. But it is different." And no doubt, in all the company's efforts, PR will play a prominent role. PR has been, and will continue to be, vital to Google's success, as it's one of the company's biggest forms of marketing, says Li. Indeed, in its SEC filing, Google touted its expansion through PR. "Our user base has grown primarily by word of mouth, which can work very well for products that inspire a high level of user loyalty because users are likely to share their positive experiences with their friends and families," the filing said. "Our early marketing efforts focused on feeding this word-of-mouth momentum and used PR efforts to accelerate it. Through these efforts and people's increased usage of Google worldwide, we have been able to build our brand with relatively low marketing costs."

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