GWU Issues Management

A blog established for the George Washington University School of Political Management's Issues Management course.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Microsoft's Steve Ballmer

The New York Times ran an extensive story on Microsoft, focusing on its CEO, Steve Ballmer. I expect that a lot of people involved in "issues management" at the company spent a lot of time working on this piece. Ballmer was probably media trained to within an inch of his life. They likely had a few key messages that he had to drive home either directly or implicitly through his behavior. It is also clear that they gave the reporter pretty open access, not only to Ballmer, but also to some internal documents. There had to have been a strategy behind this piece.

It is a fairly long piece, but worth reading all the way through. It gives a pretty comprehensive view of where the company has been, where it is and where it hopes to go. There's not a whole lot about public policy, which is, in itself, telling. What does that tell you?

It is always a gamble to give a reporter this much access. So, why did they do it? What were they trying to achieve? What issues were they addressing? What were the key messages? How did Ballmer do as a company spokesperson? Did the bet pay off?

I don't want extended analyses. Just give me your reaction to the piece. Choose whichever question you'd like to answer or comments on something else that may interest you.

23 Comments:

Blogger Danny said...

I think the purpose of Microsoft trying to get an article like this published is that they want to change the public perception of their company through positive publicity. Microsoft is becoming viewed as a company of yesterday who is being eclipsed by companies producing newer technologies and adapting better to consumer demands. But this article does a good job of highlighting how Microsoft is trying to keep up with its competitors and how it can be just as inovative.
Giving a reporter a lot of information was a good idea in this case. There were a lot of quotes by Ballmer and they all seem to address perceptions that Microsoft would like to change.

7:12 AM  
Blogger Bethany said...

My guess is that they had 3 main reasons for opening up for the reporter. First, Ballmer is set to replace Gates. Microsoft needs to boost confidence in Ballmer & convey to their stockholders that the company will be in capable hands. Second, an in-depth article like that personalizes the company--something that "big bad Microsoft" needs to do in order to remain a powerhouse and limit their bad press. Microsoft has had a pretty negative image--an article like this could do a lot to mend that image (maybe). Finally, with Vista being rolled out, this was a great earned media strategy to create more publicity for the company.

I think, however, that the impact of the article was probably lessened by its length--how many people are really going to read an article that is that long? My guess is not too many. So how much did it really help? Who knows, and in my view, who cares? After all, it's not like I have a choice about using their products. (Sorry to any Mac users out there, but I'm not a fan, plus they have too many compatibility issues when the rest of the world uses PCs.) I didn't stand in line to get Vista, but I didn't need to. When I buy a new computer, I'll have no choice, and Microsoft knows it. I don't think boosting sales is really a major concern for them.

7:24 AM  
Blogger Bradley said...

I believe the primary reason of this piece was to attempt to change public perception of Microsoft away from its perceived image as a massive monopolistic company marred by anti-trust lawsuits. Secondly, I think with Bill Gates leaving the company next year, Microsoft will lose its founder and well known spokesperson, so they need to introduce a replacement to the public. Enter Ballmer. I was also struck by the stark differences between Gates and Ballmer, particularly when it came to Ballmer's rather frugal lifestyle.

11:50 AM  
Blogger rach a. said...

Interesting profile piece... I feel as though perhaps like many of his friends in corporate business, he is attempting to lasso in the company and focus on the bare-bones strategy first and foremost. Perhaps the public policy drive and perhaps the changing of the branding of Microsoft (to a software-focused company) will come later and is part of the greater strategy of achieving their new strategy. Interesting how much visuals truly have an impact: the image of Ballmer looking away with his face in his hand projects a man who is thinking very hard about the future and what lies ahead at Microsoft. No smiles, no gimmicks at the moment. Just focus on the core and re-energize. Much like many other top corporate and public office strategists are doing in the gearing up for the next few years under the Democratic majority.

12:19 PM  
Blogger Brian C. said...

I agree with most of the posts here, especially in regards that the purpose of this article was to introduce Ballmer as the new face to Microsoft. Although it was done a little over the top, their point was made. Also, I found it interesting how the article kept trying to portray Microsoft as vulnerable and not as powerful as the media and industry makes them to be, especially in regards to a lot of their failures and the threat of Google. While I don't necessarily buy it, it definitely serves a purpose to tone down their image and not portray them as the monopoly they truly are. Bottom line with Microsoft is that unlike Wal Mart, they saturated the market early for a relatively new technology and as long as they keep improving their products they should be around for a very long time and dominate the computer industry.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Susan said...

I think that Microsoft was trying to accomplish two things during this article. First, to the average citizen I think that they were trying to make Microsoft seem more human...both by putting the human face of Ballmer on it, and also by making it seem like they're not the big bad giant anymore since many other companies are now competing.
The second thing that I think that they were trying to accomplish was to make Mr. Ballmer (and the company as a whole) look good to investors and business people. By both talking about the company's innovations and their belief that they not only can compete in the changing market but that they will succeed and also by talking about Mr. Ballmer's leadership and persistence.
I think that their message was stick with us, we know what we're doing and we can adapt to the changing markets. We're still the best.
I think that the fact that it was in the business section makes the first part of their goal (reaching out to the average person) somewhat unnecessary. Given the length of the article and the fact that it was in the business section I think that most of the people who were reading it would be investors, wallstreet, etc. and less so just the average person.
Also one thing that stuck me was in the very beginning when the article state that in his world view "failure is not an option." It seemed very Bush-like and I don't know that given the unpopularity of Bush that it was the best image to portray.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Melinda R said...

I would also agree with the other posts here, in that this was used as a tool to make Microsoft seem more human and to introduce Ballmer to the public. However, I don't think Joe Public was the primary target for the article. It was long, and in The New York Times. This wasn't directed at middle America, but at Wall Street, Microsoft shareholders (or potential shareholders) and the educated, early adopters of technology -- like the new Vista. The article was meant to appease those people, and to regain some lost confidence that people may have with Microsoft.

I believe there was one more intended audience in all this -- the media themselves. Afterall, all jounalists read the Times, and if something is placed in the Times, it's likely to show up all over the country in some form or another. This was Microsoft starting the snowball, and therefore they wanted to included all possible information so that other journalists might reference it or react to a specific piece of the pie that would be important to their users. All in all, a good job on the part of Microsoft.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

My initial reaction is that Microsoft is trying to reassure both their shareholders and their customers that the company will remain strong in the future. Although he has been with Microsoft for many years, Steve Ballmer will soon replace Bill Gates as the acknowledged head of the company. Gates has become well known throughout the world, and his leaving could make people uneasy about Microsoft's future. They are probably attempting to preempt this from happening.
Also, in discussing the different ways the computer industry is shifting, and the other forms of technology Microsoft has become involved with is also designed to bring a sense of calm to those who depend on Microsoft in a variety of ways. This is an article that seems designed to demonstrate the sound future that Microsoft wants to project, and they hope it will dissuade anyone who thinks that their best days are already behind them.

2:03 PM  
Blogger Dulce said...

I believe the release have two key messages: a) Microsoft is trying to regain the image of predominant leader in the market, b) addressing this message to investors, retailers and competitors, the release wants to show a company capable of adjusting to a new business environment. For this reason, Ballmer is presented as the ideal leader for Microsoft because he can make the company more dynamic and deal efficiently with its legal troubles.

2:16 PM  
Blogger phillip cory said...

Steve Ballmer to Bill Gates is like comparing night to day. He even said he could not handle the lifestyle of a programmer because he was more social and needed that interaction so it makes perfect sense that he would be more of an anti-Oz with no need to stay behind the curtain like Gates did. This inside look at the new man with the reigns of Microsoft just shows that Ballmer is now leading and is different than Gates. I believe that this is just a new direction for Microsoft because the man leading is different than the man who is not anymore.

5:35 PM  
Blogger ChrisG. said...

It might be just me, but I haven’t given Microsoft much thought recently. Sure, I use a computer and therefore their software products day in and day out, but that being said, this was a Sunday NY Times piece, two days before the launch of their newest operating system and Office products. Although the article was long and they used Ballmer as the selling point, it came across to me as “remember us”. The biggest sticking point to me is that Microsoft’s stock price has been flat. I felt this piece was a tool to boost investor confidence especially with the new software coming out. The article also did a good job of selling what else Microsoft has gotten into, with the Xbox and Xune to show they are more than just software. But perhaps the biggest thing that struck me was having a net worth in the billions of dollars and going to work each day.

6:54 PM  
Blogger Justin P said...

I was surprised by the intense focus on Ballmer’s personal choices in life and his personality as a CEO. My guess is that this approach aims to increase the comfort level investors and potential business partners of Microsoft have in relation to the company. It has become apparent that Microsoft faces a wide range of challenges moving forward, and the company’s expansion into the video game and personal music player market will further test Microsoft’s ability to adapt and grow.

Microsoft still provides the most widely used OS and productivity software, and their reputation as a “safe” bet persists. The article seems to balance this view with the rising prominence of Google and other entities in the growing area of online applications. The article seems to suggest that Microsoft certainly faces challenges, but has a history of eventually dominating areas it identifies as important.

10:39 PM  
Blogger Nathan said...

My read on why Microsoft would offer a reporter such open access is that they need to rebuild the image of the company. While it may be one of the most recognizable companies in the world (and certainly has the wealthiest CEO) they have recently been plagued with negative media stories. Not only have they had anti-trust charges levied against them, but their most recent operating systems have been far from perfect. Since many other businesses enjoy watching a juggernaut like Microsoft squirm, these stories have been reported and re-reported until the company has a problem on its hands. In the end, my belief is that allowing open access to Microsoft allowed them to show how they are similar, and different, than every other software company out there. With Google being very open about their operating practices (and getting a lot of positive feedback about it,) perhaps Microsoft was attempting to pull back the curtain and show that they are truly a people ready company, not some faceless giant corporation like Wal Mart.

6:55 AM  
Blogger Brooke said...

Microsoft could not have asked for a better PR punch; the New York Times on a Sunday, two days before the launch of Microsoft Vista and Office 2007. When I think of Microsoft, I think of Bill Gates. As Mr. Gates prepares to become a full-time philanthropist – all stakeholders involved with Microsoft have to wonder what happens to Microsoft when he leaves – will it continue to dominate or will competitors find a place in the market?

The article is two-fold. First, it accomplishes a generous introduction of all things Steven A. Ballmer. Second, it attempts to convince the reader that Microsoft is not a monopoly.
I personally don’t believe Microsoft has a monopoly any more than I think Apple has with the iPod. As long as Microsoft can continue to fill the market with innovative ideas and new technology they will remain the competitor to beat, and Mr. Ballmer will be anointed as Microsoft’s new guru.

8:44 AM  
Blogger Brandt said...

I think that Microsoft is really scared, with the impending departure of the companies largest figure and the competition on every side of their business. I think that it was a mixed article, in the end I did not walk away feeling overly excited about Microsoft. I still felt they had their problems and am not sure that they will be able to overcome their competition as they had in years past. I think it’s a good start to change things around for the company.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Ohio2DC said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Seth said...

The main purpose of this article (and Microsoft's purpose in prompting it) is to allow Microsoft's stakeholders a chance to more intimiately know Ballmer, who will take over for Bill Gates. An inside look into a top Microsoft executive, his background, his managment style, his family life, his relationship with customers, etc. is useful and interesting to major Microsoft consumers. Although not a completely glowing piece, it does paint an overall positive picture of both Ballmer and Microsoft. The cut-throat business style associated with Microsoft is thus seen by consumers and rivals through a slightly softer, more humanistic lens.

In addition, the piece shows that Microsoft has changed with the times, not just to increase its bottom line, but to be a better corporate citizen. The relationships that Microsoft has forged with key rivals are critical to achieve this notion of change, and in Ballmer's own words, he even compliments chief competitors.

12:28 PM  
Blogger Stephanie said...

I don't really think that this article was aimed at mass public opinion. I think it was meant to increase stock-holder confidence. With the change in leadership, the legal problems and the changing marketplace, Microsoft needs to improve its image and show that it has a plan and is prepared for the future. It is casting itself as the always-dependable and innovative computer company. Although it has continued to make a profit overall, its stock price has remained steady and its new ventures have yet to make a profit. The next phase will be scary for investors, and the temptation to flee to Google and others will rise. I think that the article accomplishes the goal of creating confidence, however, because it humanizes Ballmer and expresses his motivations, what he is capable of and his determination to succeed.

1:49 PM  
Blogger Alison said...

The main thing that strikes me about this piece is that it isn't about Microsoft at all - it's about Steve Ballmer. I think most people are right in their comments that the company's interest in the article is to introduce Ballmer to the public and set him up as the replacement for Bill Gates. But I think the really interesting point is that they have chosen to do that at all - just because Gates will no longer be running the show doesn't mean that Microsoft has to stop using his incredibly recognizable face and name as part of their brand. If they thought that Gates as a personality was an asset, they could keep on using him for that even after his death. I think they are trying to put a new face on the company precisely because so many people have a rigid (sometimes negative) view of who Gates is - having Microsoft and Gates be synonymous is holding the company back from reinventing itself.

1:56 PM  
Blogger Will said...

In granting this type of access, Microsoft was attempting to showcase themselves, and Steve Ballmer, as young and cutting edge. With increased competition from the hardware side, Apple, and the online/software side, Google (both of which have reputations of being alternatives to the stodgy Microsoft image), Microsoft is using the introduction of Vista to begin the reshaping of their image. In that respect, Ballmer fills this job by portraying himself as an unreserved risk-taker, who will do what it takes to maintain Microsoft’s dominance in the industry.

3:09 PM  
Blogger Alison said...

A lot of bigger, "faceless" companies will make some effort to humanize the business - often through creative paid / earned media or even blogging. There are a number of big companies or associations who have a very high ranked person blog on the workings and happenings within the company and its scope of business. This appears to be Microsoft's venture into the same kind of effort. Make it human, make it personal. This article's goal isn't to sell products; it's to sell the Microsoft brand.

3:29 PM  
Blogger Caitlin said...

I hate to beat a dead horse because it seems like everyone is in agreement about the motivation and messages Microsoft is trying to get out. Apple has revolutionized how a computer is advertised as well as what people are thinking about when they consider purchasing computers. It seems that Microsoft is trying to get a piece of the "fun loving, people friendly" action. I think Ballmer did a great job as the spokesperson because they are trying to promote a fun loving and energetic, but still hardworking side of the company, which is how Ballmer is portrayed in the article. I think it also shows in their other advertising. Most Americans would like to see themselves as fun loving, energetic and hard working and Microsoft is going after that image. After Microsoft's new operating system is on the market for awhile I think we will have a better grasp on how effective Ballmer will be as a spokesperson.

3:34 PM  
Blogger Elan said...

I should start out by saying that this story inspired no strong feelings in me. It’s not that I have mixed feelings; just that I was left with no strong feelings either way.

Certainly, Ballmer was presented in an incredibly favorable light. Never having had a negative impression of him before, this even-handed presentation of the new Microsoft chief of a calm, rational business man leaves me fairly comfortable with the future state of affairs at the company. If anything, I might have been a bit let down by this presentation of Ballmer – I had always thought of him as the Steve Jobs of Microsoft, a little bit out there, a zealous believer in the mission and potential of the organization.

Reflecting on my lack of strong feelings evoked by the article, I’m most immediately drawn to the question of intended audience. Appearing in the Business section of the NYTimes, the article was clearly not aimed at the average, subway ride-reader. (At least, that’s not who the NYTimes was aiming the article at; who’s to say the audience that Microsoft had in mind when granting the interview? – for now, let’s assume they agreed on the audience and placement of the article.) The intended audience, then, must be those folks with an eye on Microsoft and the industry. Obviously, the announcement of Bill Gates’s departure from the company has left just about everyone – shareholders & Wall Street types, tech folks, Microsoft insiders, Microsoft’s competition – a bit on edge. In a sense, it’s comparable to, say, George Washington’s decision to leave the US presidency after two terms. Catering to these people, the people paying attention to Microsoft in the wake of Gates’s imminent departure, the article is, as most people have commented thus far, an attempt to assuage worries and project a positive, solid future.

6:43 PM  

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