[WARNING: EXTREMELY LONG POST]
First, the standard disclaimer: I used to work for Microsoft so it's either former employee shill or ex-employee sour grapes, you pick but that's where I worked.
Second disclaimer: I present these types of 'case studies' as important learning experiences for you as you grow/manage your company, I'm not bashing/slamming anybody. Plus it's entertaining.
Today, many people believe Blogs are solving lots of problems. One problem now believed solved is more transparent communications inside corporations with customers, partners, employees, and other shareholders.
Here's a good case study to look at as it winds its way through the blog sphere, etc, etc.
Steve Ballmer is asked a question about RSS. He answers it. Microsoft uber Blogger Robert Scoble jumps on it, Dave Winer jumps on Steve Ballmer and we have ourselves an itsy bitty little controversy.
Let's now take this apart and see what we can learn from all of this.
It all started with a guy named Amit Malhotra doing up a blog entry on his talk/interview with Steve Ballmer. The full post is here but there a couple of things worth pointing out.
First, Amit says in plain english the interview was NOT VERBATIM.
Good for him, 10 points. More points in making it totally clear that he isn't a reporter, wasn't sure he was even getting into the event and, in general, it was really really clear (at least to me) this wasn't a recorded/formal transcript of an interview. It's a key point, I'll come back to it.
Lesson One: Be straight up. I can't tell you how refreshing it is when you get somebody to give this type of context before you have to draw conclusions.
The question he asked was about RSS and it's impact. The actual, direct, verbatim question isn't known or remembered by Amit but the point is he was asking Ballmer, basically, what do you think of RSS.
What Amit heard and/or remembers, he wrote in his blog. He believes Steve said, interesting stuff, not gonna change the world, other technologies allow for more complex stuff, it will be around, lots of work and debate regarding RSS is going on inside Microsoft.
Even more points for Amit, he asked the PR people for transcripts and said he would post them.
Amit's blog entry was entitled, in part: "RSS not huge but important."
All in all, nicely done by Amit.
Enter Scoble, Microsoft's uber blogger, budding young book author, speaker, and all around nice guy (so I'm told, never met the man).
Robert tosses out a blog entry with the title: "Ballmer tries to cool the RSS hype a bit?" In that blog entry, we have a link to Amit's story with a summary line about what Steve said. Scoble credits Steve Rubel for the link. Steve's post has the title: Ballmer to RSS Enthusiasts: Chill.
Scoble blogs that Ballmer said RSS is important but won't change the world while Steve Rubel blogs that Ballmer threw some water on the RSS party, according to Amit's posting.
Next up, we have Dave Winer, a long time industry dude, super smart, very forward thinking, and a super nice guy that I have met and would vouch for.
Dave offers up a blog entry with the title: Is Microsoft of two minds on RSS? In this entry, Dave jumps on Ballmer for spreading FUD regarding RSS. Dave follows with his, agenda free, RSS will rule the world commentary. Just kidding, don't flame me, a little simple humor.
And back we go to Scoble with a blog entry entitled: "Dave Winer calls Ballmer out over RSS comments" In this installment, Scoble points out he is working with RSS teams in Microsoft and he believes that Ballmer "did seem to throw mud in the water" but everybody is checking with PR on what exactly was said.
And we round all this out with a post from another MSFT person named Dare Obasanjo. He blogs that "our CEO decided to downplay the importance of RSS this morning in favor of XML Web Services.
Let's start with what should be the obvious. We don't know what Steve Ballmer said. Period. And that's important. The person who wrote the blog made that clear.
As of when I'm typing this, nobody including Scoble has posted a transcript of exactly what was said.
This, of course, means we have a raging rush to judgment (Johnny Cochran: RIP) before the facts are even know.
Lesson two: Find lots of these incidents and study them. You can get really really good at anticipating reactions by reading this stuff.
No amount of PR/Press briefings/training can prepare you. You have to get the gut instinct to understand how information is moving in today's world.
This topic of this episode is classic. There are always debates of technology, always people with agendas on what is better, what's coming around, what's old, etc.
The CEO of Microsoft probably should get some credit for hiring smart people and letting those groups work out what makes sense for the company.
Lesson three: Corporate Blogging, jury continues to debate it. I'm using Scoble as the poster boy for this lesson because he's out there doing his thing. It's not personal and it's not directed at him/Microsoft rather a lesson for everybody.
When you study this adventure, you can't help but notice a clear sequence of events.
1. Somebody writes something they heard from CEO. Not verified yet.
2. Still unverified, employee comments and cranks it up a notch. That's strictly my opinion of Scoble's comments regarding what Ballmer knew, who he talked, and the witty 'come on channel 9' invite. You have to read it and be your own judge of his style.
3. Others pile on with still no verification of the original comments.
4. After a few hours and multiple bloggers making entries and running commentary, the CEO's unverified comments have become fact and taken on a "mud in the water" meaning that nobody knows to be true.
5. Rinse and repeat.
I'm not going to pick apart Ballmer's words nor nit pick Scoble's words. I do think that Dave Winer calling Ballmer's comments "FUD" is unfair and wrong, but that's Dave. Steve saying Firefox may have a problem with diabetics and those with flat feet, okay, that's FUD.
But what was reported he said, that we don't know for sure, in no way rises to FUD standards as Dave knows em. Dave's been around and has lived through standards FUD and, well, Dave should know better.
But, Dave jumped in, which is fine, he is still a good/smart guy.
And to be clear Ballmer didn't say anything about diabetics and people with flat feet. Something about Firefox, loosing hair and not getting dates but I can't remember exactly what he said.
On Corporate blogging, here's what I think your company rules should be, in this order:
A. Don't embarrass our customers.
B. Don't embarrass us.
C. Don't embarrass yourself.
Again, since Robert Scoble is out in public and there is a good set of opinions/comments regarding his writings, I suggest you study his postings to get a sense of what can go right and wrong with corporate/employee blogging.
In his case, here are some things you can learn from.
Scoble is a tech geek of the highest order. He is also, in my view, a reactionary. By that I mean, he has enough watch tags, alerts, and people tossing tips his way, that he is in that trap of wanting to jump on everything as fast as possible. I've got the same bad habit of ready, fire, aim but I'm getting much better as I get older.
In my opinion, Scoble could have sent the link he got to WagEd, asked if there was an actual record of (or witness to) what was said.
It seems to me that if it turns out that Ballmer was making the same type of comments he's been making for 15+ years regarding technology, it's not news. For years (and years) Ballmer, when asked about MAPI, WOSA, XML, ASP, .NET, OLE, etc, he basically says exactly the same thing. It's interesting but that piece of technology, in and of itself, isn't the be all end all, it's about applications, usages, people, passion, etc, etc.
In other words, Ballmer may make comments about Open Source vs. Windows or FireFox vs. IE but when it comes to the components that makes it all work, I don't think he is playing favorites, dissing one over the other, or pouring water on any geek party.
That's part of balance and that's where I think many corporate blogs go a bit too far. Mis-quotes, bias, clips, unfair attacks, are all things we hate. If corporate blogging is supposed to put a human face on a company, I'd like to believe those humans will work hard be straight up.
I'm not suggesting corporate blogs become shills for your company nor am I suggesting there is a free for all where people with agendas advance those agendas in a public forum. I know that sometimes change only happens when enough noise is being made, I just observe it can be a slippery slope.
Finally, on corporate blogging, there is a sense of fairness that should be put in place and it should be the cornerstone of every corporate blog. Heck, maybe every blog or everything, but I digress.
Remember, we have an unverified set of comments. And to those unverified set of comments, we had a smart industry player (Dave Winer) call these comments FUD. We had a corporate blogger, Robert Scoble, point people to this FUD comment and drone on.
Fine, except, it isn't fair to Steve Ballmer, Scoble's fellow employees, or people trying to keep up with the Microsoft happenings.
It can't be FUD if the comments aren't confirmed to have been made by the speaker. Period. Simple and, in my view, Scoble should have called Winer out vs. giving some defacto creditability to this unfair characterization of somebody's unverified commentary.
So, again, this isn't a rant on Scoble nor debate on RSS, rather my pointing out to you that these are the kinds of episodes that are just super valuable lessons you just can't get out of books.
We live in an era of open and transparent communications. That means all of us have more responsibility for what we write and say because the impact is far greater then ever before.
Happy Victoria Day, folks, enjoy the weekend.