In a recent PRWeek Op-Ed ('Time for tech PR pros to grow up," October 30), Stephen Astle, SVP at Fleishman-Hillard, asserted that "tech may well be alive and well, but it will never be cool again."
Some have bristled at that statement, but tech is, in fact, losing its cool by embracing what is purportedly "hip." While Apple keeps its cards (or pods) close to its chest, companies like AOL and Yahoo have either been unaware of how their public receives their signals or have been unable to implement one of the most important tenets of PR: the concise and careful messaging of information.
What the tech industry - and certainly its PR people - needs to realize is that there is a huge ravine between transparency and discretionary disclosure, and major players are too often mistaking the two. Historically, companies have looked to executive turnover and corporate strategy confusion as discretionary disclosure (that is, communicated to the press only when beneficial), but recent software trends (the "b" word that rhymes with flog) have tricked many people into thinking everything is a case for transparency.
A number of former and current AOL employees have taken to blogs to comment on CEO Jon Miller's departure (one of the bloggers, SVP Jason Calacanis, announced he was leaving soon after the news about Miller broke), and, being as no one can agree on whether Miller's tenure was great or dreadful, the entirety of the situation makes the company seem as if it's reeling.
According to many media reports, Yahoo is neither a company that is doing tremendously well, nor is it one on life support. Yahoo is experiencing growing pains because the portal situation is imperiled, so it's not as if it is failing while others are succeeding. That is to say, any panic in Sunnyvale, CA, would be premature.
However, Yahoo SVP Brad Garlinghouse distributes a typo-riddled memo talking about the company's floundering (a pretty bad move on its own), likening its offerings to peanut butter spread too thin (woefully adolescent). Do yourself a favor and Google (or Yahoo) "Peanut Butter Manifesto" - 529,000 hits and counting. "Peanut Butter" leaked, as most memos do, and the community is left to ponder its relevance, importance, and intent. Very few, if any, are thinking this is a good thing.
Recent incidents aside, PR is not the practice of deterring or fettering the process of the free press.
So, despite the missteps of Yahoo and AOL, the solution is not to shut down employee blogs or to tell executives to keep quiet. PR people just need to be more active in effecting decisions.
The recent tech stories receiving ink are an embarrassment to the PR practice. Ironically, it's likely that actual PR pros had little to do with them. So it might be wise to march to your client and/or executive superior and say, "Look what happens when I'm not running the show."