The great PR cock-up

vistalogo_200x40The phrase “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” seems to be an appropriate idiom to describe a developing kerfuffle surrounding Microsoft’s latest blogger outreach campaign ahead of the launch of Windows Vista at the end of January.

Concisely, here’s what’s happening:

1. A few days before Christmas, Microsoft (or Edelman – the lead PR agency for the launch of Vista – depending on which blog post you read) emailed a number of influential US bloggers to ask them if they’d like to receive an Acer Ferrari notebook computer pre-loaded with Vista.

2. No strings attached:

[…] while I hope you will blog about your experience with the pc, you don’t have to. Also, you are welcome to send the machine back to us after you are done playing with it, or you can give it away to your community, or you can hold onto it for as long as you’d like. Just let me know what you plan to do with it when the time comes.

3. Bloggers start posting about the invitation they received; some have already received the computer and blog their first impressions/opinions.

4. Others criticize Microsoft and Edelman with accusations of bribery. Words such as ‘astroturfing,’ ‘payola’ and ‘PayPerPost’ abound.

5. Confusion starts to take hold as some bloggers report that Microsoft is asking for the computers back.

6. The first murmurings start that this is another developing ethics scandal for Edelman.

Maybe I’m missing something here, but what on earth are all these people whingeing about?

Oh wait. From scanning some of the blog posts and comments, it looks like many of the whingers are those who didn’t get an invitation from Microsoft!

Be that as it may, what seems to be the fuel for much of the critical blog commentaries and comments to posts is disclosure. Or rather, lack of it at the outset – few of the bloggers who first started posting mentioned the fact that they’d received the computer from Microsoft for purposes of review. Some of them have subsequently posted updates to their posts with the disclosure.

It’s all a bit messy, a situation that could have been largely avoided if there was a clear requirement that any blogger receiving the laptop must disclose that fact. That wasn’t the case.

If I’d been writing the invitation email, I would have included a sentence that might read something like this:

If you accept this invitation and receive the computer, you must make full disclosure in any blog posts you may publish that you received the machine and software from Microsoft for the purposes of review.

This isn’t bribery or astroturfing or anything nefarious like that. But without the requirement to disclose, you have ambiguity and opacity – things that got Edelman into trouble with Wal-Mart blogger relations programmes a few months ago and earlier this year.

Take into account, too, that with Microsoft, it’s a fair assumption that you can’t please most of the people most of the time.

It’s a tactical PR cock-up, that’s what it is.