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How do you spin spin when spin becomes public?

Microsoft's P.R. firm accidentally e-mailed a very detailed memo to a magazine reporter – a memo about the reporter.
Wired Magazine.

Wired Magazine. None

We're in the midst of a fascinating teaching moment in the world of media and public relations. The teachers are Wired magazine, Microsoft, and the Redmond company's longtime P.R. outsource, Waggener Edstrom. The moment is the worldwide distribution of a Waggener Edstrom memo that was accidentally sent to a Wired writer as he was preparing a story about Microsoft. The memo was about the reporter. The lesson is how real pros handle journalists. Fred Vogelstein has a story in the latest issue about how Microsoft's popular Web site for developers, called Channel 9, was launched and thrived as an unusually transparent way for the company's programmers to communicate with outside developers who work with Microsoft tools. It was part of a themed issue of Wired about transparency. The memo reveals that Microsoft feared Vogelstein would write that Channel 9 was a shocking departure for the company and succeeded despite internal opposition, when in fact this transparency with developers was nothing new. Moreover, the company wanted to stress, there was no resistance whatsoever from anybody in authority to the idea of letting the Channel 9 bloggers and vloggers do whatever they pleased, corporate image be damned. Volgelstein is a seasoned technology reporter, and in this thoroughly reported story Microsoft comes off pretty well – unscathed would be accurate. By now, Microsoft should be self-aware enough to take in stride inevitable references to an overall, long-standing, and well-deserved reputation for control-freakishness when it comes to public image. That was in the story, but so was a lot of evidence that the company is no longer drenched in arrogance. I thought Vogelstein painted a pretty nuanced picture: There was no official resistance to Channel 9, but there was some resistance in the trenches. The company's desired spin got its due, in context. Or maybe Microsoft got more than that. Here's what Wired editor Chris Anderson thinks:
By the way, as far as I can tell, everything in the memo is accurate. I also think the executives were very well served by the document; they did indeed stick to their message and they got pretty much the story they wanted. This was also, as it happens, the story I wanted – or was it just the story I thought I wanted because I was so effectively spun by Microsoft's PR machine?
While the fact it got out might be a little embarrassing, the memo is something Waggener Edstrom can show potential clients to demonstrate its doggedness – no, obsession is a better word – with prepping an interview subject while shaping a message. Here's a snippet of what it says about Vogelstein:
Fred can be a little tricky in interviews. He looks deeply for any dirt around whatever topic he is focused on and generally is tight lipped about the direction he will take for his stories, sometimes even misleading you to throw you off. It takes him a bit to get his thoughts across, so try to be patient. Be careful not to lead him down a path you would prefer to avoid. He is generally friendly, knows Microsoft quite well, and tends to start off his discussions with softball questions, but they progressively get deeper and deeper until he unearths something he finds interesting. Be careful of his approach.
I gotta say, this sounds like every reporter I've ever worked with, including me, but still, I wish someone would prepare me this well when I go to conduct an interview. But reading this, Vogelstein wrote in a sidebar to the Microsoft story, made him feel "peculiar." "I know my long-windedness drives my wife nuts occasionally," Vogelstein wrote. "I didn't know it had become an issue for Microsoft's PR machine too." Seriously, though:
But it seemed clear from the memo that there were close to a dozen other people involved. Some transcribed the interviews I conducted; others kept notes on my every utterance for clues about what questions I might ask next and ultimately what my story would say; others briefed executives with questions I had asked and suggested good answers. Indeed, if you read the memo closely it's clear that my experience with Microsoft on this story was their end game. For something like six months prior they had been plotting to get Wired to write a story about Channel 9 and had dispatched three executives to meet with editors at the magazine in hopes of setting their hook.
Should I be flattered that they worked so hard, or should I be embarrassed at being co-opted by their spin machine? I'd like to think I would have written the same story no matter what. But now, through the miracle of transparency, you, the reader, get to decide that too.
Incidentally, if you want to know how a P.R. firm manages its own bad P.R., read this.

Chuck Taylor is formerly editor of Crosscut. He has also worked for The Seattle Times and Seattle Weekly, and now blogs at Seattle Post-Times. You can reach him at chuck.taylor@newsdex.net.


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