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Frank X. Shaw : “The topic of Microsoft vs Google is irresistible”

Client Conversation

Arun Sudhaman 07 Mar 2011

As corporate VP of corporate communications at Microsoft, Frank X. Shaw has one of the biggest PR jobs on the planet, overseeing all communications, media and public affairs for the tech giant, as well as its critical global agency relationships.

The ex-Marine joined Microsoft in 2009, following the short-lived tenure of Simon Sproule. Shaw’s hire raised few eyebrows; he joined from Waggener Edstrom, where his 15-year association with Microsoft culminated in leading the client’s worldwide account team.

Less than a week after trading barbs with Google about their competing search products, Shaw explains why offense is as important as defense and discusses the importance of rising above the fray.

How do you deal with the sheer complexity of Microsoft? You oversee different units each with their own PR teams and agencies.


I agree that we certainly have a lot of different products and services we offer and if we’re not careful that can lead to a lot of complexity. A lot of work we do across the company is to ensure messaging alignment, coordination across broader marketing functions, and making sure we are being supportive of all the groups in key messages. I don’t know that we are incredibly complicated.

You have one of the biggest PR spends in the world. How do you ensure it is invested wisely and that you are getting value for money?

One of the things we look at is making sure every dollar we spend provides more than a dollar return. For the last couple of years we’ve run a number of initiatives to look at benchmarking Microsoft against other companies, to make sure we are consistent in terms of how we look at things. We now have single global measurement in terms of PR activities, a standard organisational template that looks at best practices rom around the world - size of teams, makeup of teams, the right mix between internal resources and agency spend, when it makes sense to go outside. In terms of the impact, the measurement system we have is pretty helpful in saying did we do a good job of communicating our message - we use that as a tool to improve - what can we learn and how do we apply it moving forward?

You’ve worked on Microsoft for a long time. What is it about the company that makes you so passionate?

I think I have the best job in PR. This is a company that cares deeply about communications and really believes that it is not something you bolt on at the end. As a result of that, the ability to be involved and have impact along an entire cycle rather than just at the end is really high. And that is the goal of every communications pro in the world.

Second, we have an incredible breadth of the things we’re doing, ranging from entertainment like Kinect, to the cloud work we are doing - and everything in between. When you look at that, it’s exciting. Over 15 years, there’s always been something you can see out there on the horizon, where you say, “Wow that is going to be incredibly cool - and I want to be able to talk about that when we bring that to the market.”

Microsoft does take communications seriously. But do you think it gets a fair shake in the media?

I wouldn’t say we don’t get a fair shake in the media. As a communications pro, as soon as you start believing you’re not getting a fair shake in the media, you are setting yourself up for some big disappointments. There are certainly times when a story might appear that we disagree with.

Judging by your comments on your corporate blog and Twitter, you’re pretty vocal when it comes to defending Microsoft and - indeed - in going after your competitors. How important is it that you play offense as well as defense?

You always have to have the right balance - I think we play offense on a pretty regular basis - both through PR and the communications related to an event and a product and - believe me - we closely track how we’re doing in spending our proactive time and our reactive time. At the same time, we do need to be able to rapidly respond to things that are happening broadly in the communications world. If you let something go unchallenged that you disagree with, it becomes established wisdom very rapidly.

Which explains why Microsoft responded so strongly to the Google issue last week?

That was interesting because it was so highly charged. We knew it would be because the topic of Microsoft vs Google is irresistible, and the way it was framed up initially was very unfavourable for Microsoft - and there was a level of nuance in the real story. By the time Danny Sullivan came out with his final post on the topic, people who read that would say it was way more complicated than I might have thought, at worst. It doesn’t have such a clear line in terms of right and wrong, hero and villain than might have seemed from the coverage.
 
Microsoft is often cast as the villain against the likes of Apple and Google. Last year you worried about losing momentum in terms of perceptions. Does that still concern you?

That’s a good opportunity we took to tell the story directly. The point was not that the momentum was going against us but that the metrics that people were using to judge us were not reflecting the reality of the company. In that specific case we were going through a period where people were looking at us through a very specific lens: ‘We are going to define Microsoft’s success and failure through a consumer lens defined by are you selling something that looks like an iPhone or an iPad.’ The truth is we are a much broader company. How do we remind people that there are many big businesses at Microsoft?

With that in mind, how hard is it to rise above Microsoft’s constant presence in the media and focus on the bigger picture?

That’s a real challenge. You have to be able to do both. We are living in the golden age of communications. We have more ways of sending and receiving info and listening to dialogue and participating in debate than we’ve ever had before and its faster than it ever was before. If you’re not careful the urge to participate in the here and now can be overwhelming. I would include Twitter as part of that. But we have to be able to step back and think ahead - what are we doing today that will plant the seed for what we’ll harvest six months from now, nine months from now? When you look at that, what are the big broad themes of coverage that we want to generate? That’s when you say I’m not going to get down in the weeds.

What do you look for in people you hire?

To be successful in this industry, you need to love what you do. You need a passion for the content you are enmeshed in, whether it is search, entertainment, developer tools, and you have to be deeply passionate about the art of communications.

For one of the biggest PR jobs on the planet, you have a relatively low personal profile. Is that on purpose?

Remember, I was at the agency for a very long time. The role, in my opinion, when you were at an agency, you don’t want to be the story. And so, in that arena, I had an appropriately muted public profile. And here in this role I have to always weigh how my time is spent and there is no shortage of challenges and opportunities that I have to look at.
 

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