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Does it hurt to be castigated?

Oct 28, 20023 mins
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The incident that caused Steve Ballmer to get so worked up was one of the dumber things done by the public relations side of a major U.S. corporation in years.

You can tell that Steve Ballmer is a Harvard boy. When Microsoft’s CEO was asked about one of the company’s public relations 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 than 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 U.S. corporation in years. The last case like this that I can remember was AT&T issuing a press release announcing that the one-time biggest company in the world – whose stock was considered safe enough for “widows and orphans” (some of you readers might not remember those utopian days) – was adding the “Hot Channel” to its cable TV companies’ lineups, thus proving two things: that pornography is still a technology driver; and that PR departments can be stunningly naive.

For those of you who have turned off the TV until after the elections to avoid the stomach-turning political ads (almost makes one lose one’s faith in democracy), Apple Computer has been running ads in which 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 its own “switching” Web page.

Called “Confessions of a Mac to PC convert,” the page purported to be from someone who switched to Windows XP after owning Macs for eight 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.

The story did not ring true, so it did not take long for folks to start poking around and find the name of a public relations firm embedded in Word documents that accompanied the ad. Another example of Microsoft’s refusal to seriously evaluate the privacy aspects of its products – neat that one of the problems bit the company this time. It turned out that the whole thing was written by the public relations firm that 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 state 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 postgraduate study. Anyway, the above observation is mine alone.