When software rivals Microsoft and Novell collaborated on a joint venture last year, confusion erupted as some in the industry wondered if the competitors were banding together to launch an unprecedented new operating platform.
The collaboration wasn't quite so dramatic, and neither Microsoft nor Novell had any plans to scrap its trademark operating systems - Windows and Linux, respectively. But the tech giants still reached a surprising agreement to build a bridge between open source and proprietary software. And with a structured messaging framework in place, they were able to quell wayward rumors and communicate the goals of the venture.
"There was confusion internally and externally," says Susan Hauser, GM of customer advocacy and licensing at Microsoft. "Many customers and partners were looking at us and saying, 'Microsoft and Novell - you guys are fierce competitors. This is a little odd.'"
But both companies were prepared for the industry to be rocked by the sudden amiability between the two giants, and had devised a communications strategy.
Prior to going public with the announcement, they outlined a messaging framework that incorporated three key points: the partnership would give customers peace of mind about intellectual property, it would drive a deep investment in technical collaboration, and would involve a significant sales and marketing investment from both partners. All of these messages fell under the larger theme of interoperability.
"We really started on day one with a messaging framework around these areas, and [asked] what was the value that we were going to communicate," Hauser recalls.
The next step was presenting a unified front, ensuring that both their key audiences got a consistent message.
"Quite often when companies launch alliances there is a joint press release and that is where the joint communication stops," says Susan Heystee, GM of global strategic alliances at Novell. Yet in this case, both companies worked together on every aspect of communications - from press engagements, upcoming projects, announcing customer wins, and case studies.
The companies first sought to clarify the agreement to their internal staff, alerting them through e-mail, webcasts, and regular progress updates.
"We spent a lot of time internally going through a very structured process to make sure people were very clear as to what this partnership was," Hauser notes.
The external audience comprised a diverse set that included chief information officers, tech decision-makers, and business decision-makers. Outreach to these groups consisted of presentations at trade events, road shows, and analyst and media relations.
Despite the unified front, the companies were up front that the two are, ultimately, competitors. But Hauser says addressing these boundaries bolstered its credibility.
"Consumers have applauded that and said, 'I'm really glad you're not walking in and saying you're collaborating everywhere because that is not going to be true,'" she adds.
Awkward PR moments will inevitably ensue when companies that rival each other in the brutal tech sector are faced with cooperation. The best way around potential confrontational minefields, according to both Hauser and Heystee, is being forthright in communicating those boundaries. Even so, remaining committed to this goal can be challenging - especially when caught in the midst of the collaborating spirit.
"Often when you have a partnership, you are comfortable and you blur the lines," says Hauser. "Or you're uncomfortable saying we collaborate here and compete here.
"Very often," she adds, "Microsoft will publicly state that that we believe that Windows is the best platform and Novell will say they believe SUSE Linux is the best platform."
Moreover, there are points where the companies' messages didn't resonate as a collective voice. For example, Novell's message was more tailored to the open-source community - one of its key audiences. Conversely, Microsoft's message was often crafted to directly address concerns surrounding intellectual property.
Since both companies retain their own PR agencies, there was an added element of collaboration that had to be coordinated between the two primary firms - Waggener Edstrom Worldwide for Microsoft and Shift Communications for Novell.
"The collaboration of the two PR teams has been a terrific learning experience in that there are certain parts of the messaging that are more important to Microsoft and some more important to Novell," Hauser notes.
The venture celebrated its first anniversary last month. Looking back, both Hauser and Heystee point out the progress they have made in tackling the challenges of crafting a message with a market rival.
"When we first sat down to the joint messaging, it took a few days to get it all pulled together," says Heystee, adding that the process is quicker and more seamless now. "It's really been a fantastic first year for the partnership."
At a glance
CEO: Steve Ballmer
Headquarters: Redmond, WA
Revenues and latest earnings: Fiscal Year 2007, $51.12 billion
Key trades: Windows In Financial Services; InformationWeek; eWeek; ITPro; ComputerWorld; PCWorld
Marcomms budget: undisclosed
MARKETING SERVICES AGENCIES:
Primary PR agency: Waggener Edstrom
Primary Ad agency: McCann Worldgroup