Sunday, September 4, 2016

This Is How You Roll Out a New CEO

In the days before Satya Nadella was named Microsoft’s CEO, leaks to selected tech bloggers changed the discussion around the succession from disappointment at the prospect of an in-house replacement to a sense that it was only natural for Microsoft to elevate a veteran who had been at Bill Gates’ side for 22 years. When the announcement came, it sweetly told us that this was as long as he had been with his wife.

But with the traditional press release came an “asset pack” that Microsoft PRs shot out to century-old newsrooms and influential one-man blogs alike. It contained high-definition images of the new CEO looking relaxed but in charge, wearing a hoodie or purposefully clenching one fist as he addressed staff. And it included a biography describing him as a poetry-loving cricketer who “brings a relentless drive for innovation” to the job — good fodder for the “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Satya Nadella” listicles that followed.

Then came the videos: testimonials from Gates and outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer about what an ideal successor he was, and an unchallenging interview by an in-house blogger, conducted as they strolled casually around a people-free section of Microsoft’s headquarters. “How did you feel when you were offered the role?” asked the smiling employee. “Honored, humbled, excited,” the newly minted boss replied. Nadella’s first interview as CEO ended with the blogger posing the softball question: “Why do you feel Microsoft is going to be successful?”

It was a masterclass in PR spoonfeeding and news organisations simply had to drag and drop. With no press conference or one-on-one interview in which to ask tougher questions about the challenges Microsoft faced, and no chance to send news photographers or videographers of their own, that’s what they did. The Financial Times was among those that embedded one of Microsoft’s videos in its reporting that week (noting that it had been produced by the company), linked to and analyzed Nadella’s blog and used the company-issued photographs.

The “asset pack” contained no mention of the thousands of planned job cuts that followed a few months later.

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