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Does it hurt to be castigated?


By Scott Bradner


You can tell that Steve Balmer is a Harvard boy.  When Balmer, Microsoft's CEO, was asked about one of Microsoft's PR firms getting further ahead of the truth than what goes for normal at Microsoft -- he replied "If that's right, I will certainly castigate the offender."  Naturally a better class of language then you would expect from non-Ivy League schools like the trade school a few miles down the Charles River.  We train 'em good here at Harvard.


The incident that caused Steve to get so worked up was one of the dumber things done by the public relations side of a major US corporation in years.  The last case like this that I can remember is AT&T issuing a press release that announced that the one-time biggest company in the world, whose stock was considered safe enough for "widow's and orphan's" (some of you readers may not remember those utopian days), was adding the "Hot Channel" to the lineup on their cable TV companies.  Thus proving two things; that pornography is still a technology driver and that PR departments can be stunningly naive.


For the education of the folks among you who have turned off the TV until after the elections are over to avoid the stomach turning political ads (almost makes one loose one's faith in democracy), Apple Computer has been running a series of ads where people talk about switching from Windows machines to Macs.  The speakers in these ads look like real people and use what seem to be real names.  In this case Microsoft put up their own "switching" web page. 


Microsoft's version, called "Confessions of a Mac to PC convert," purported to be from a someone who switched to Windows XP after owning Macs for 8 years and was thrilled with her new life.  And the switch was easy: "I was up and running in less than one day, Girl Scouts honor."  Maybe the Girl Scouts should join the parade of people suing Microsoft because there was no honor in this switcher. 


Since the story did not ring true it did not take long for folks to start poking around and to find the name of a PR firm embedded in Word documents that accompanied the ad. Another example of Microsoft's refusal to seriously evaluate the privacy aspects of their products -- neat that one of the problems bit them this time.  It turned out that the whole thing was written by the PR firm, which works for Microsoft, and the lovely picture of a young woman looking somewhere between meek and plaintive, turned out to be a stock photo from Getty Images.


  Considering the sate of Apple's sales it should not have been hard to find a real Mac-to-PC switcher, so the whole episode gives the term amateurish a whole new context.  I hope Steve's castigation message is "speak the truth" and not "don't get caught." Time will tell.


disclaimer:  I could not find a Harvard class on castigation so Steve must have done some post-graduate study, anyway the above observation is mine alone.