Saturday, June 25

"The Best PR Strategy Is No PR Strategy" as PR Strategy: A Case Study

I'm going to indulge in a bit of personal editorializing about a work topic. I have to admit I am--personally--ambivalent about Jonathan Schwartz's Weblog. Writes the power-suit-wearing hippy, the executive-hackerdude:
One of the big upsides of my job is hobnobbing. I clearly didn't check with our corporate communications team before saying that, but let's be honest - it's cool to sit with a head of state, or a head of a corporation, or a CIO with an IT department bigger than Sun's entire employee base. The perspective is always fascinating.

See, I just don't believe that. I tend to think corporate communications, or some marketing consultant, told him to say that. "This is not flackery, this is just me talking" has been a standard flackery maneuver since Marc Antony took out a full-page ad in the Daily Lares et Penates to say he came, not to praise Caesar, but to bury him. Yes, Jonathan is an honorable man. Unlike Marc Anthony, however, he tends to use the rhetoric of the flame wars--that shockingly balls-out insult-fest that has been going on in Usenet for years and has now been picked up by the vast right-wing blog conspiracy--to tag Sun's competition, effectively, as evil hypocritical soulless corporations. What, and Sun is not? Its culture is so unique and revolutionary? I seriously doubt it.

I visited their booth at the recent SIA show of financial services tech, for example, and basically found another company trying to sell boxes. Really, Microsoft had the really state-of-the-art PR model going, with its new "experience Financial Services" model. On the other hand, the Sun boxes I saw were actually pretty cool boxes. The demo guys saw I was from the press and started condescending to me painfully, explaining what OpenOffice was in kindergarten terms. "I've been using it since it came out," I'm telling 'em. I note one of the screens is running X-windows--it's got XMMS open--another showing a Windows app, so I ask 'em about that. And they're all like, "See, XMMS is like Winamp for Linux and Solaris ..." I KNOW that! Hey, I'm hip! I speak the lingo! I have compiled my own kernel! So finally I have to walk away. Still, they had this little beige box that was running a trading workstation demo--and the whole big vendor suite--that really did show some snazzy platform-agnosticism and power. It's ugly--no fancy transition behaviors in the interface--but it seems to work damn good. Bip bam boom.

On the other hand, the Zen PR strategy of no PR strategy might actually be an effective PR strategy, crude as it sometimes seems. This approach appeals to an emerging demographic of hacker wannabe techies ... of which I admit I am kinda one. In theory, a generation growing up on open source software is going to produce a user base of people with contempt for the "hide all the geeky stuff in the background so you can just be free to create" marketing that's driven Windows. Call it command-line chic. High-school kids will be all like, "oh, I do that from a command-line client, it's much better."

So I guess that if Jonathan's blogger propaganda campaign is crude, it might represent a smart bet. Don't think the flack corps is not polling behind these charmingly spontaneous and refreshingly undiplomatic remarks. They're targeting a demographic with increasing purchasing power, just like anybody else. How do I know this? Well, I don't, but if you attended their Sun on Wall Street flufffest at the W earlier this year, there was a comic moment where it seemed to show: Jonny boy dragging bigtime corporate technology partners up on the stage and saying, "okay, this is spontaneous, right?" and the responses sounding really canned. "Yes, I say spontaneously, of my own free will, that Sun is better than sliced bread. Their technology saved spring break." So much overemphasis on the spontaneity theme that you began to feel perhaps Jonathan doth protest too much. ...

And this IBM bashing, I just don't get it. IBM folks don't even want to talk about it. And why should they? They just refer you to their balance sheet, and Sun's. Profits talk, BS walks, in other words. Don't have to be a rocket scientist to get that, none of this fancy talk about revolutionary market models. We build the better mousetrap and people buy them. As the dude generation grows up, they'll surely get wise to that at some point. The IBM attitude: too busy building Wintermute and programming it to take over the world to bother to swat the flies. I find that impressive, too: their spiel is "Here's what we built and here's what it does: It can defeat the human chess champion of the world. Impressed? Thought you would be. Now here's how we did it ..." Maybe Sun needs a moonshot like Deep Blue, something like, oh, say, helping build the $100 laptop and getting it distributed to, oh, say, 100 million people in developing countries. THAT would impress the hell out of me, and would in theory only cost 'em $10 billion. In theory, Bill Gates & friends could afford to give every single person on earth one of these things.

All I can say is that I'm glad the head honcho at work doesn't blog. The top dog should listen more than he talks and when he or she speaks, it should be to clarify things once and for all, with no room for reading between the lines. IMHO. Bozo that I am.

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