In a story today by Henry Blodget, Apple makes a PR 101 mistake that reinforces why you don't directly criticize your competitors in public forums. Even worse, Apple PR made this mistake in the week Samsung is launching the Galaxy S4, a product many already predict will challenge the iPhone's perceived dominance.
Does criticizing competitors make good copy and generate buzz? Sure. I still remember Marc Benioff's quote in ZDNet 7.5 years after he made it about Oracle's acquisition of Siebel, "Even dinosaurs mate a few times before they die." Was it funny and quotable? Absolutely.
But in that same post, David Berlind discussed the fact that Siebel was adding almost as many seats per quarter as SalesForce had total. I don't think Benioff necessarily lived to regret his comments since SFDC has continued to grow and prosper, but was a little of his message--that SaaS was the future--lost by Berlind's reminder of just how small the company was at the time? I think so.
But back to today: Blodget's article discusses how an Apple executive directly criticized the Android operating system and the challenges users face when they activate an Android phone. Blodget points out that Apple's comments seem defensive, which is a good reminder that though a spokesperson's intent may be to hit on key differentiating messages, direct criticisms are often lost in speculation of why the comments are being made in the first place.
When we media train executives, we often will advise that executives avoid directly criticizing competitors. You can criticize competing approaches, but never call out individual executives or companies. Why not? For several good reasons beyond this one example:
- It is petty--taking aim at another company in public seems petty and beneath confident companies and executives.
- The message will be lost--you may think you are making a good point and juxtaposing your strengths against a competitor's weaknesses, but instead the journalist will focus on the defensiveness of the comments and assume that the company you're criticizing has you worried.
- It gives a competitor free PR--the comments often legitimize your competition more than damaging them. In this case, it created yet another news cycle around the Galaxy S4 launch.
- No company stays on top forever--Business is like a sport where today's market champion is tomorrow's also-ran. Even if you're not vulnerable today, you will be at some point and that is where the bill comes due on public mocking of and perceived arrogance toward competitors.
So what to do instead? If you really think you have a good point to get across, arm the journalists or the analysts with the questions you would ask your competitors.
"One question I would love to see answered by other mobile OS providers, is how do they plan to reconcile the activation experience for their customers when things are not particularly well integrated or intuitive? I think it is a good topic to research since we're past the point of early adoption and looking more at general users adopting the latest smart phone technologies. Are those new customers going to enjoy that experience? It's a key question moving forward."
But that is a comment in an interview during a proactive PR campaign and not during the week of a competitor's major launch. I am an iPhone user and our household is definitely Apple-centric, but do these comments mean that I should check out the Galaxy S4? I am definitely intrigued.
In roughly 30 minutes, Facebook will end the speculation about what the company is "building" when it hosts a media event at its headquarters. These types of PR events have become more and more popular over the years, as companies try to generate pre-announcement buzz and hype, and capture the imagination of their customer bases.
So what will it be? The rumor mill is flying, with the most popular option being a Facebook phone or special phone-based application/operating system with a phone partner, like HTC. This makes a lot of sense since many think Facebook's long-term success depends on its ability to monetize mobile.
The web site of the Boston Globe has a fun slideshow on the topic that rounds up some of the rumors around the web. The irony here? I'll be using a competing social media platform to find out what the news is when Facebook finally addresses the throngs of fans, skeptics and observers at its HQ.
On second thought, maybe they should build a competing platform to Twitter?
When your chosen profession is public relations for technology companies, you get a sense of the ebbs and flows of the markets you represent. There are times when the media makes market developments seem apocalyptic and other times when journalists make you think you are working on "The Next Big Thing."
Gartner measures these swings in technology perception and adoption in their hype cycles, which labels each stage with flowery language like the "trough of disillusionment", "peak of inflated expectations" and "slope of enlightenment." If there is one thing I have learned after seven years in the Bay Area, it's that the perception peaks are always higher and the troughs are always lower in Silicon Valley.
Here are five areas where, based on my personal observations, I think we'll see perception transitions in 2013: Cleantech, Healthcare, Social, Big Data and Mobile Security. One caveat: this is strictly related to general market perception and not customer adoption or business success.
2012 perception: Major disillusionment. Solyndra. Trade wars. Bankrupt companies and struggling stocks. This was a rough 12 months for perception of Cleantech. But just as the hype in 2010 was overblown, the disillusionment in 2012 was similarly overdone. Many experts are comparing the pullback from Cleantech to the obituaries written for Internet companies during 2001 and 2002.
2013 prediction: Rebirth and steady progress. Just like the Internet revolutionized commerce, cleantech will revolutionize the manufacturing, energy and utility industries and winners will result.
2012 perception: Stagnation. Speculation has been rampant the past several years about how big of an impact Obamacare would have on medical device and healthcare IT manufacturers. Will it kill market opportunities and therefore, company valuations? Or will the newly insured millions create even bigger needs for medical devices and healthcare IT upgrades?
2013 prediction: Steady growth. Boom and bust predictions are overblown, and the market will continue to thrive even with Obamacare implementation. Mobile, social, Big Data and other technology developments will continue to drive new opportunities in healthcare technology, as will an aging population.
2012 perception: Major hype. Big data was the king of the hill in 2012, as journalists and analysts latched onto the biggest enterprise technology movement since the introduction of hosted applications. But is Big Data poised for a big dip in 2013? Perception wise, it might be.
2013 prediction: Perception trough. From a PR perspective, we'll see media and analysts start to demand more tangible examples of Big Data success in 2013, which could be a struggle for some companies. This means companies who best execute PR programs grounded in tangibility could be the winners in 2013.
2012 perception: Major trough. The social bubble burst in 2012 as companies like Zynga and Facebook faced skepticism related to earnings growth and their ability to monetize mobile. But social technology and platform adoption is too big for these companies not to experience some longer-term success.
2013 prediction: Improved perception in the face of more realistic expectations.
2012 perception: Growing hype. With near-field communication (NFC) and mobile payments in the early adopter stage, we're already hearing doom and gloom reports about the impending wave of attacks and hacks that will put the world at risk over the next 12 months.
2013 prediction: Hype will be high, but exploits low. Only 30 million of the 6 billion mobile devices in the world are NFC enabled. That means while growth of NFC is exploding, it will probably be some time before there is a high enough concentration for hacks and attacks to become mainstream.
Is it possible to launch a device the entire world is waiting for without elements of that said device leaking beyond your control? If you're Apple and you're introducing the hotly anticipated iPhone 5, then the answer is probably no.
While the world waits for the final form factor and features of the new iPhone, the information, misinformation and ill-timed communication around the launch is having an impact on Apple PR's ability to manage the launch.
You have Apple mistakenly confirming the name and the phone's LTE support via a prematurely posted link on the Apple web site (hate to be that Apple employee if it was a mistake).
You also have a case manufacturer pre-empting the introduction with its own product launch (planned or is Seidio now in Apple's doghouse?).
It is clear that no secret is safe at the world's most valuable company. What's that old saying? Three people keep a secret when two are dead?
But don't feel too bad for the Apple PR team. There are thousands of tech companies around the globe who would kill for the opportunity to have the world care so much as to try and uncover details of a product launch.
Bad news for Fanboy haters.
Samsung infringed on six Apple patents and will have to pay $1 billion+ in damages according to a jury verdict in the "My patent can beat up your patent" legal fight between the two dominant smart phone makers.
Another big loser in this battle was Google, who saw a big Android adopter get smacked.
Samsung, who manufacturers Android-based devices, is one of the few smart phone and tablet manufacturers with the design chops to get people to consider something other than Apple. So imagine Samsung getting punched in the face and its head smacking back into Google's face, and you get the idea.
The only question this weekend is what will have Bay Area Apple opponents more depressed: a big blow to one of the few viable Apple alternatives, or the Dodgers' pending blockbuster deal to acquire Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett for the stretch run against the Giants?
Bad news for Dodger haters too.
Sequoia Capital has the reputation of being on the cutting edge of venture investing. It makes a lot of smart bets, from household-name examples like Google and LinkedIn, to lesser-known darlings like Stripe, Y Combinator and Instagram. The firm has a reputation for picking winners and not being afraid to double down in a market as it matures (see Yahoo! and Google).
So while on the one hand, it might be surprising to see Sequoia place a big bet in a relatively mature industry like information security, it actually makes a lot of sense: As the world becomes more digital and social, and technology continues to infiltrate our every-day lives, information becomes an even bigger target for hackers and identity thieves.
Maybe that's why almost two decades after Schwartz MSL began working with its first security clients, like Security Dynamics (which became RSA and then was acquired by EMC), Axent (acquired by Symantec) and dozens of others, VCs still love security companies as outlined by this NY Times piece (which includes Schwartz MSL clients Bit9 and Solera Networks). Even during the dotcom crash, security companies were in good shape because of emerging financial services regulations, high-profile worms and viruses like Nimda and Code Red, and database breaches that forced companies to spend even in the tightest of times.
Today, the VC community's interest in security companies is as easy as A-P-T (advanced persistant threats). With new technologies and platforms evolving each year, large security companies have to innovate to face new threats, and nimble start-ups often beat them to the punch. Security must innovate at the pace of Apple and Samsung who, when they are not in court battling over IP issues, seemingly introduce new and more powerful smart phone and tablets on a weekly basis.
Security rarely delivers the booming IPOs of social and mobile, but it also rarely sees a company go public that doesn't have good business fundamentals and a revenue model that works. The industry may not deliver a lot of investment home runs, but it certainly has its share of singles and doubles, which are important for VCs to show a good batting average when they go out and raise their next fund.
Twenty years later and security is still a hot spot for VCs. Here's guessing it still will be in another 20 years.
Silicon Valley. Now I get it and it only took me six years in Bay Area PR.
I was born and raised in Massachusetts. Got my Bachelors at Bentley in Waltham, had all three of my kids there and spent most of my young adult life in and around the Boston area, including my first 8 years at Schwartz MSL.
My first trip to the Bay Area was in 2001 with the CEO of IONA Technologies on a media tour, and though I fell in love with it immediately and would move here less than five years later, I still didn't really understand what made it unique from a technology, innovation and PR standpoint. The Boston area has MIT, Harvard and many more top universities, along with a host of great VC and private equity firms. The risk appetite tends to be a little lower, with a lot of innovation and investment success focused on medical devices, healthcare IT and technology infrastructure, which has served it well during boom and bust technology cycles.
There are a lot of similarities between the Bay State and Bay Area, including political leanings, great seafood, an innovation economy and a high concentration of brilliant people. But there is one major difference beyond climate: the local celebrity culture.
In Boston, the athletes are our celebrities. When Josh Beckett golfs before missing a start or Kevin Youkilis marries Tom Brady's sister, it is big news not only in the sports section, but in tabloids, on the airwaves and in the lifestyle section. Bob Lobel, Glenn Ordway, Peter Gammons, Dan Shaughnessy are sports journalists you love or hate. But everyone knows their names.
In the Bay Area, technologists and VCs are the celebrities. First it was Bill Gates, Jerry Yang, Steve Jobs, Scott McNealy and Larry Ellison. Today, it's Eric Schmidt, Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Marissa Mayer and Mark Zuckerberg. Everyone knows the names of John Doerr, Paul Graham, Vinod Khosla, Peter Fenton and Marc Andreessen, along with Michael Arrington, Sarah Lacy, Om Malik and Don Clark. In Boston, the minor leagues are in Pawtucket, Providence, Lowell and Portland. In Silicon Valley, they are Y Combinator, HAXLR8R, SVTC and the other accelerators helping technology's prospects reach the big leagues.
Boston has Yawkey Way, Gillette and The Garden. The Bay Area has Sand Hill Road, Silicon Valley and SOMA. In Massachusetts, Larry Bird could be governor. In California, Meg Whitman tried.
With the launch of this new blog, Valley View, we're going to periodically offer perspective on big goings on in Silicon Valley, mainly from a PR standpoint but also some free-form posts. We'll try to get the perspectives of technology industry movers and shakers, industry insiders and journalists on the big things happening here that will impact the rest of the country and the world. We'll blend people who were born and raised in the Bay Area, and those who bring the perspective of having lived elsewhere.
Can Marissa Mayer turn around Yahoo!? Who will win the patent fight between Apple and Samsung? Will Facebook and Zynga figure out the mobile revenue model? Will a team foolishly claim Beckett on waivers before August 31 and if so, will the Red Sox just let him go?
Okay, maybe that last one doesn't fit, but you can't spell parochial without PR.