Silicon Valley CEOs Need PR Tips

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.

Rich Robinson is an attorney and political consultant in Silicon Valley. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside.


  1. As a staunch supporter of police, firefighters and public employees of all job classifications and stakeholder in coporations that have catered to the whims of their employees I AM OUTRAGED to find out that these self-entitled “private sector” glutons were ever afforded the ability to “work from home.”

    How many times have these corporate embezzlers gone apoplectic over “sick leave buyouts” and “use it or lose it” sick leave buyouts for public sector employees?  How many times did these chronic malingerers “double-dip” by “working from home” when they had a hangover and then “call in sick” to extend a weekend rather than lose what they couldn’t legitimately use?

    Can’t you just picture the conniving on the days they do report to corporate headquarters to pick up the dry cleaning and luxury box tickets from the company concierge, after the workout with the corporate trainer in the health spa, followed with an “in your cubical stress reduction massage” , 2 hour comp lunch in the employee restaurant and topped off with a nap in rest and recovery pod?

    These smug F#(<5!!!! Can’t you hear them yucking it up, “You know what they say Biff? ‘Better to misuse it so you don’t lose it’….hahahahaha thats right hahahah I have to charge the Prius if you know what I mean!!!! Yes—- hey wait you don’t even own a Prius… sshhhhhhhhhh! If Mayer finds out she’ll hit the fan….. Ya you won’t be able to excercise your option fast enough.”

    GET YOUR LAZY A$$‘es TO WORK AND INCREASE THE VALUE OF THE SHARE’s IN YOUR COMPANY THAT OUR PENSION FUNDS HOLD!!! or get used to feeding yourself and your family on food stamps!

    • I know you’re having fun, but there’s more than a kernel of truth to what you wrote.  I think it’s something that all large organizations have to fight.

      • Trust me I have lost so-called “friends” who work for Yahoo and other local “innovators” over my support for public employees who used to love to gloat on about all their corporate perqs…. usually seasoned with comments like ‘you public sector slobs are uneducated, low IQ types who are far too lazy to cut it in the private sector…’  well the chickens are coming home to roost! 

        I am curious as to why the local media isn’t covering the updates to the story – the supposed reason why Mayer came down hard.  Have you heard? She wondered why the employee lots were nearly empty on a daily basis so she wanted a report on how many employees were actually logged on to the yahoo corporate servers and engaged in “telecommuting.” She was “shocked” to find out that very few employees were logged on , that many employees hadn’t logged on remotely or otherwise in some period of time longer than a couple of days and yet ALL were happily “cashing” their Yahoo paycheck.

        Now, I don’t know what goes on at all government employers but I do know what goes on at San Jose. People are fired, people are criminally charged , and some have been convicted for theft of money associated to pay they received but didn’t work for to earn. It is certainly an embarrassment to the police and fire professions when a colleague “disappears” for this reason. Meanwhile these dopes can’t remember to log on from home and leave their account open while they are out carousing during their work day???

        Hey Rich forget Mayer, start an agency try and help the lazy yahoo’s get a real job. I’ll take a Houyhnhnm any day!

  2. McNealy was replaced at Sun before SUNW was renamed JAVA by his successor and subsequently sold to Oracle.  BTW, Ellison never graduated from Urbana-Champaign either.

    You don’t know what you’re talking about.  McNealy was always a combative guy.  My favorite McNealy line was something like, “W2K will be a bigger disaster than Y2K”.  He’s no worse than Steve Jobs when it comes to Microsoft baiting, and harsh one-liners.

    Likewise with Mayer, you don’t know what you’re talking about.  I think she’s dong the right thing.  She’s giving people until June to find an office.  I think that’s more than enough transition time.  Most financial writers and almost everyone in the industry knows what sort of shape Yahoo is in.  No one will say it, but everyone I know believes that Mayer isn’t going to have a harder time recruiting talent because she’s perceived as insensitive.  People perceive Yahoo as a dead man walking.  If she can give it some life, much as Steve Jobs did when he went back, people will want to work there again.

    • I don’t dispute Mayer’s policies, just her pr.

      Many of us are rooting for her to turn it around.  Same with Meg, nothing would be better than for HP to return to the heady days of David and Bill.  But the CEO is part of your branding; so image is important.

      • There’s an old saying, “If you’re a hammer, everything can look like a nail”.  You’re a pr guy.  With all due respect, pr is the least of Mayer’s worries.

        Have you ever worked in any of the companies you’re writing about?  Do you know how long it’s been since Bill Hewlett handed over the company to John Young?

        I cringe when I read stuff like Carl Gardino referring to himself as a Silicon Valley geek.  I suppose if you’re in PR or politics it’s easy to start thinking you’re part of the engine of growth, but I think it’s like that old saying, “coaches coach and players play”.  To paraphrase that for you, “people that do, do and people that talk, talk”.

  3. BTW, were you at Apple’s stockholder’s meeting yesterday?  The Merc’s characterization was almost like an Apple love fest:

    I think he’s doing a great job managing image.  No one mentioned that shareholders were forced to check in their electronic devices and had to pass through a metal detector, or that Cook only answered questions for a half hour until exactly 10 o’clock.

  4. If this politicized, class-warfare diatribe against four successful Silicon Valley CEO’s is any indication, the Obama-led campaign to silence and intimidate conservative voices in California is in full swing.  There can be no other explanation for the ignorance and leftist pablum displayed here. 

    Maybe Mr. Robinson’s firm is tossing out the net for his next PR gig, but I still have to be generous and believe that not even he can seriously suscribe to the views presented.  With gems like “Tim needs to be Tim”…I hardly know where to start.  And why the inaccurate attacks on McNealy?  Does a high and successful net worth really mean one has to cease criticizing government?  Where’s the evidence McNealy was *not* empathetic to employees over the *30* successful years of Sun ?  Where’s the evidence that (unlike Robinson) McNealy just doesn’t understand the benefits of Harvard and Stanford?  Or that he’s “dumping his alma mater” ?  All unsupported.  And how ‘bout that brilliant insight that governments aren’t dictatorships (someone should buy him a globe), and that government isn’t a business—- all life lessons from Robinson, contributor to that economic basket case that is now California, and ever more dependent on the “McNealys” of today to fill Sacramento’s coffers.  And note to Robinson:  SUN was from “Stanford University Network”, and graduates of community colleges *do* get funding for new companies.  Elitism is creepy.

    The only plausible explanation for Robinson’s invective is his own background as a mouthpiece for Democrats.  His bio ( ) tells all.  Shall I list his benefactors?…  Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Ted Kennedy, Alan Cranston, Biden, Gary Hart… and even California state gems like Vasconcellos and Shirakawa.  Is there any doubt from where Robinson expects the ROI for this tantrum ?

    It’s a shame Robinson is so troubled when his idealized PR images (Steve Jobs, are you kidding me?) conflict with those of other successful CEO’s who’ve created hundreds of thousands of jobs, whose personal and corporate taxes from the likes of Sun, eBay, Apple, Yahoo and others funded schools, college tuitions, health care, families, roads…..not to mention careers that in turn generated hundreds more companies.  Gosh, Rich, you’d think they’d all be rushing for a PR makeover from such a sorry track record…  Talk about ungrateful.

    The SanJoseInside editorial staff should be ashamed for letting this political tripe be disingenuously presented as a “PR” lesson for CEO’s.  They should acknowledge it for what it is… an unsubstantiated attack by an Obama operative on prominent independent and Republican CEO’s.  Sure, it comes across as churlish.  And mightily bitter.  But be real, it’s calculated.  It’s not about PR.

  5. Awwww, the poor yahoo babies in the private sector are whining because they have to actually leave their home and go work at the office. Boo-hoo. Bet some of these people are the very same people putting down the public employee, saying how good they have it. I am sure the public employees would love to work from home and have some of the perks the private sector workers are afforded…but even when the don’t, they don’t villianize the private sector for what they have. I simply cannot feel bad for you.

  6. She’s raking in the dough while rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Everybody knows Yahoo is just slowly dying. Talent attrition is their biggest problem, making the company even more unappealing is just completely idiotic. With so many competent executive women out there, why is it that high profile silicon valley companies only seem to find the morons? Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, now her… They couldn’t run a fricking bodega, let alone a large company.

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