The titans of Silicon Valley need some personal public relation advisors. Marissa Mayer, Tim Cook, Meg Whitman, Scott McNealy and many others fail to grasp the most basic PR concepts. They don’t have to look far for good role models. David Packard, Bill Hewlett, Steve Jobs and Gordon Moore were masters at molding their public image.
Let’s start with Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer. Her recent edict to get rid of work-from-home options for employees could have been a huge public relations win. Yet, the method of execution left her open to charges of insensitivity; that she fails to trust her workforce; and, perhaps most damaging, that she lacks understanding of the modern challenges of raising a family in the 21st century.
As a recent mother who can afford her own personal nursery at the office, the “out of touch” label has become the storyline.
From a business perspective, the move may make sense. However, Mayer could have “transitioned” the process in a way that by the time it was complete, no one would have cared. This transition would have given her an opportunity to make the needed changes without the fallout. Even better, she could have had a better process to implement the policy by giving details of the plan, asking for input from employees, accentuating the need for her team to be together for decision-making purposes, mitigating the children issue by insuring on-site daycare, extending personal time for family and flexible schedules, and other potential incentives for employees.
Such a rollout most likely would have resulted in the same policy, without the harshness associated with an impersonal memo.
Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, has a different problem; he is no Steve Jobs. The public relations value here is he doesn’t have to be Jobs. Tim needs to be Tim. He can establish his own identity, while building on the foundation of the past. Everyone knows Jobs was a visionary, but it was Cook who steered the ship. He should utilize just a few of the traditions of Jobs and honor his spirit. Using the Woz isn’t a bad idea.
Meg Whitman is currently rebuilding her image. Like Tiger Woods, Martha Stewart and Bill Clinton, Whitman had a huge image problem. In an effort to appeal to the myopic base of the Republican Party during her failed gubernatorial run, she was forced to take anti-gay, misogynist stances; she was ultimately portrayed as an uncaring racist who put political necessity over human dignity.
Whitman received bad advice and she gave her political consultants an unlimited budget, which they managed to exceed. With that background, Whitman needs to reestablish an image that she is an excellent executive and rehabilitate the current perception that she doesn’t care about people.
Her recent change of position on Proposition 8 was a start. She could have rolled it out better, explaining her reasons. In addition, Whitman could return to rock star status if spent half the money she wasted on political consultants and television ads during her campaign on K-12 education initiatives.
Whitman was correct in minimizing turn-around expectations for HP; now she is in a position to exceed all expectations. That was a great call from a PR perspective.
Finally, all responsible chief executives—even ex-CEOs—should never act like former SUN chief Scott McNealy, who comes off as churlish and bitter. Given his net worth, he should be less envious of his contemporaries, less critical of his government, more empathetic to employees and, finally, he should understand the benefits he has received from his education.
McNealy complains he should have never attended college; that he wasted his time in those higher institutions while dropouts like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg were changing the world.
But Gates and Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard, and McNealy attended Harvard and Stanford. Jobs was connected to David Packard and other Silicon Valley legends. The fact that his old corporation, SUN, was an acronym for “Stanford Universal Networks” should give him some pause for dumping on his alma mater. If he had gone to Butte Community College, he would never have gotten his company off the ground.
As for government, a note to McNealy: Government isn’t a business. Most businesses fail. Those that succeed often get bought or bailed out by the federal government if they become big enough. No single person, not even the President, has the power to do everything they want or make financial decisions that everyone must follow.
Unlike a company, the U.S. government is not a dictatorship. The fact that McNealy pays taxes, most likely at a rate less than his employees, does not give him the expertise to tell the government how it should work. It seems Mr. McNealy was never invited to the White House to opine on how “his” tax dollars should be spent, something he finds personally offensive.
Finally, McNealy needs to stop complaining that he’s not as wealthy as Bill, Steve, Mark or the guy who bought his company—Larry Ellison. Nobody feels pity when someone is wealthy enough to do anything they want. His freedom is not being encroached and the taxes he pays are minute compared to what he has in the bank.
There is nothing worse than a bitter, complaining and ungrateful billionaire. If only the Koch brothers were listening.
Rich Robinson is a political consultant in Silicon Valley.