Microsoft has a Public Relations Problem

Microsoft needs to change its public relations strategy to keep its customers from assuming the worst

It seems that just about every day there's some crank out on the Internet who has a theory about how Microsoft is finally going out of business. Although I'm a crank, I don't hold any theories about Microsoft going out of business—simply because the company continues to make bank. But just because Microsoft continues regularly to make tons of money by pushing gobs of products onto billions of consumers, that doesn't mean that everything is perfect or that they're doing everything correctly.

Human Nature and the Peril of Information Vacuums

I'm sure that part of the problem—which I perceive to be a publicity problem on Microsoft's part—is that humans (even optimistic ones) tend to drift toward negativity when there's no information available about something that they care about. Stated differently, having no information tends to cause people to assume the worst about a problem. For example, what would you think if business is bad at your current company and you haven't heard anything from management in a long time? Most people would tend to think that management is laying low and scheming different ways to fire everyone. However, maybe the company doesn't want to get everyone's hopes up before announcing some amazing merger or news that will make everything better.

Microsoft does have to keep some secrets and details close to the vest for several of its products, platforms, and strategies, so it stands to reason that passionate Microsoft consumers would tend to assume the worst when Microsoft goes silent for a long time. As such, I can't help but think that many of Microsoft's PR problems might be helped if the company could just figure out how to give us a few nibbles or tidbits of information—something to keep us from assuming the worst.

But when I look at how Microsoft is conducting itself, I can't help but wonder if there's something more than just an information vacuum that's to blame. Although I do believe in the proverb, "Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence," it's sometimes hard not to think that Microsoft isn't being careless, reckless, or even brazen when I think about some of the dumb moves the company has made recently. This sentiment is especially true in terms of managing Microsoft's relationships with IT partners and how the company has done such a poor job in many aspects (but not all) of managing developer expectations.

Microsoft: Screw the Partner Ecosystem

Many years ago when I was a technical evangelist, I had the opportunity to create content for several different marketing wings within Microsoft. In almost every case in which I interacted with Microsoft to create content highlighting technical details and benefits, one of the things that the Microsoft project managers that I worked with always stressed was how well the company's particular product or offering supported the partner ecosystem. In other words, Microsoft's offerings supported a vast market of services, products, and offerings that helped enrich the organization's brand by means of letting other companies embrace and extend the base options provided by Microsoft.

However, in the past few weeks I've been floored to see stories making headlines in which Microsoft appears to be picking favorites and screwing the competitors of these favorites in some really surprising ways. For example, a CEO is now daring Microsoft to sue a specially created startup just to get clarification on how Microsoft is obviously letting one partner flagrantly violate its licensing requirements. Needless to say, such a prospect has caused no small stir within Microsoft's hosted services partner community.

Another recent and related story says that Microsoft is also trying to sneakily block licensed VDI users from deploying to non–Windows 8 tablets. Although it's hardly news that Microsoft would be so petty and short-sighted, it's hard to ignore that Microsoft seems to be pissing off some of its most ardent supporters—something that I'd personally see as a PR problem.

Something About Developers

Of course, developers have no problem understanding how Microsoft's sparse, vague, and regularly insufficient details on various platforms, tools, and technologies can cause all sorts of confusion that leads developers to assume that the sky is falling. Granted, some Microsoft teams are much more transparent than others. Personally, I've had a hard time not getting irate with the Visual Studio (VS) team. Case in point, this recent MSDN blog post on "Visual Studio 11 Beta Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)" drove me batty.

Without exception, the loudest feedback that Microsoft seems to be getting about Visual Studio 11 concerns what's going to be done about the color or poor design that users have encountered with the initial beta. Although I understand that many developers don't like the new muted color theme (I happen to love it), that's not what I'm talking about. Instead, I'm referring to how beta users complain that it engenders a loss of productivity due to bad UX. Yet, the MSDN blog post simply glossed over the question and pretended like it wasn't even a concern. Even worse, to my knowledge there's no word from Microsoft about whether this problem will be addressed.

Microsoft has led Silverlight developers to assume the worst with the announcement of Windows 8. Remember how long Microsoft made Silverlight developers wonder (again) whether Silverlight still had a future? Now that I think about it, Microsoft doesn't seem to be too forthcoming on details.

If you're a .NET developer, remember when you felt like you'd been demoted as a .NET developer with Windows RT in favor of COM of all things, simply because that was the huge focus that Microsoft kept trying to cram down our throats? In all these cases, reality has shaped up a bit better than our worst fears or expectations. However, when Microsoft doesn't provide information to go on, it's only natural that developers will assume the worst, especially when it comes to products and offerings that they're passionate about.

Microsoft Needs to Change its PR Strategy

In the end, Microsoft isn't going out of business anytime soon. I understand that Microsoft can't share every detail about every product or strategy that it has up its sleeve, but the company's messaging and PR efforts suck and could use some help. Microsoft needs to throw us a few bones, and do so more regularly. Otherwise, it's too easy to feel confused, irritated, or screwed. Ultimately, because people tend to think negatively in the absence of better information, it's impossible to see how Microsoft's current strategies won't somehow hurt its long term business goals.

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