A look inside Microsoft’s multi-channel PR strategy

The tech giant’s VP for communications shares how it engages and interacts with the public.

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan’s new distance-learning portal, RaganTraining.com. The site contains more than 200 hours of case studies, video presentations, and interactive courses. For membership information, please click here.

Technology has set off an explosion in the communications world, and communicators who want their company’s message to be heard have to aggressively engage the market using all available tools and channels, according to Frank Shaw, Microsoft’s vice president of corporate communications.

Shaw said he giggles at reports of the “death of media” when we’ve seen such a rapid growth in publishing.

“There are more and more ways to get information, not fewer and fewer ways,” Shaw said in this Ragan Training session, Strategies for the changing nature and pace of communications. “Yes, it is true that the mainstream media might be in decline, but publishing is exploding.”

“Everybody is a publisher,” he said. Employees, PR people, customers, and competitors are using technology to inform, comment, sell, and criticize.

“If everyone is a publisher, our competitors can publish about us, our employees can publish about us, people that we’re not watching can rear up and all of a sudden have a major impact on our brands and our reputations,” he said.

Tech trends drive consumer activity

That’s why companies must understand the trends in technology that are driving consumer behavior and develop successful marketing strategies. Three overlapping technology and consumer trends—personal computing, cloud computing, and social computing—are changing life as we know it.

“Today there really is no difference between technology and the world we live in,” he said. “There was a time years ago that you could say they were separate—you had technology and you had the rest of the world—but just looking at the devices that are in this room and in our lives and the way people communicate today, technology, communication, society, and marketing are all the same thing.”

People don’t just use personal computers; they are computing, he said. They can connect almost anywhere, and they are sharing their thoughts via social media across a “multi-device world.”

“I’ve got my phone, my tablet, my e-reader, the device in my car, the thing that’s hooked up to my TV … that’s the world they’re living in,” Shaw said. “They don’t think about cloud computing; they think about wanting access to their stuff everywhere.”

Marketing strategies are changing, too, and having a social media plan is an essential part of a winning strategy, he said.

This is excerpted from a Ragan Training video titled Strategies for the changing nature and pace of communications.

Social media ‘baked in’

“Today, social media, for most companies, is an absolutely essential part of the marketing mix,” he said. “If you don’t have social media baked into what you’re doing, you’re really falling behind.”

Across its eight brands, Microsoft recently counted more than 45 million “likes” on Facebook and more than 2.6 million followers on Twitter. Those connections are “huge” and enable the company “to reach people we haven’t reached before,” Shaw said. By comparison, NBC’s “Today” show reaches 4 million viewers on a good day, he said, and the 2 million “likes” total just for the Microsoft brand equals the daily circulation of USA Today.

This “direct storytelling” can go beyond social media platforms, he said. More than three years ago, Microsoft “rebooted” its Press Pass site-home for executive biographies, speech transcripts, and other company information-and created its News Center.

Telling stories directly to its audience

While fighting legal battles with the Justice Department, Microsoft felt it was not getting a fair shake from the media “and thought we could do a better job of humanizing the company and telling our story directly.”

“When we started [the News Center], reporters were irritated. They said, ‘You have no right to tell your own story directly … that’s our job.'”

“We’re not trying to do away with the media,” Shaw said. “We simply wanted to make sure we have a voice.”

That News Center voice carries stories on Microsoft people and projects, company points of view, and other interesting information. Its story on the release of Internet Explorer 9 had more than 276,000 page views and a 41 percent click-through rate to download the product, he said.

The company also launched its MSW site to engage directly with employees with unique content. It logs about 5 million page views a month and reaches 85 percent of employees each month.

“It is a great way to let our employees know what we think,” he said.

Marketing strategy is complicated challenge

A company’s communications strategy must also include multi-channel marketing, video, and interactivity, he said.

“It has always been the holy grail for marketers to tie everything together, and today it’s even more important,” he said. “Your email, direct mail, outdoor advertising, internal communication, and external communication all have to have the same look and the same feel, the same theme, because that’s how you’ll have impact in the marketplace.”

People expect engagement in the marketplace on all channels, but if you don’t have the right resources, “you can create more problems than you solve,” he said. That effort must also align with your goals and deliver measurable value to the company.

“If you engage competitors, you have to have the right tone, you have to get it right, or you could be seen as a bully.”

He pointed to a spoof commercial that Microsoft released on the opening day of a competitor’s conference. He said the funny commercial “broke through” to garner 55 percent of the press coverage surrounding the VMware event. The goal to disrupt the conference with the humorous poke at VMware was met.

Corporate communication can be risky business

“We’re all in the risk management business,” he said. “We can do many things, but we have to ask ourselves, does the upside outweigh the potential downside.”

He said this is especially true with online networks, where every week there are examples of “social media experiments gone wrong-brands being hijacked, logos being panned, people taking social media assets and turning them in bad ways. You have to ask, as we think about engagement, does the risk outweigh the reward?”

In a world where everyone is a publisher, all employees are spokespeople for the company, and competitors have never been more aggressive, the pressure is on communicators. They have to get ahead of negative news, shift the conversation when needed, know when to engage competitors, and recognize when to be quiet.

“One of the hardest parts today about being in communications: It is a high-wire act,” he said. “The work that we do as communicators for a company, for a brand, for a product … it requires us to be public in ways we have not always been public before.

“I’ll say that there is a moment of truth every time I hit the return key on a tweet where you say, ‘Is that my last tweet as an employee of this company?’ You have to think harder about personal and professional responsibility and image.”

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Topics: PR

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