Public Relations, or “How I Learned To Love Josh”

The other day I sat with my wife in Denver International Airport, bored out of my skull. We had a couple of hours to kill before our flight back to LAX and I needed something to read both then and in-flight. So, being the tech geek that I am, I grabbed a copy each of Wired and Fast Company.

After shaking out the two dozen or so subscription card things (because, you know, lots of newsstand readers want to subscribe to the same magazine two dozen times – what’s up with that, anyhow?), I dug into Wired first.

Wired Cover
(Wired: I love the cover, BTW)

The thing that caught my attention was this issue’s focus on “Radical Transparency”. Apparently, there are companies out there that are turning their inside operations out into the open, allowing customers and clients to both to read up on things that would otherwise never have been put out there in the old days. The reasoning behind policy and product changes, internal company debates and decision making, that sort of thing.

It seems that there are even companies out there that allow their employees to post all sorts of stupid crap on their official company weblog – and allow customers to respond in turn with (sometimes) well-founded complaints and witty scathing remarks. Madness!

Straight-Jacket

Okay, so this is a bit tongue in cheek on my part. DreamHost has always been a bit more, err, out in the open than its competitors. While other guys have traditionally filtered everything through a bunch of Public Relations mavens (or limited their unfiltered discussion to a small list of “safe” topics), we’ve long been ones to put it all out there and deal with the consequences.

I’ll leave it up to you, our loving customers and weblog devotees, as to whether this is a conscious decision on our part or simply a side-effect of not being able to keep our big fat mouths shut when we probably should.

DreamHost? Public Relations?

Of course, that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been forces within the company that felt uncomfortable with this sort of thing – and by that, I mostly refer to myself. Way back when, before my full-time Abuse days, I was actually the designated Public Relations guy here at DreamHost (I’ve done a little of everything, it seems). Not sure how that happened – I lack the fake perma-smile, fashionable wardrobe and earnest pretty-boy good looks that seem to go hand in hand with PR – but happen it did.

I took to the role with some degree of gusto, and among my tasks I somehow convinced Josh (one of our four Head Honchos and DreamHost Newsletter writer) to forward his Newsletters to our main internal list before sending them out. We had some, well, perhaps ill-chosen Newsletter incidents in the recent past and received more than a few complaints about them. So, I figured, as I was going to be the main guy who would be responding to them, I should probably do my best to keep Josh under some control and limit the damage before it happened.

Common Responses

Of course, Fearless Leader™ 1 of 4 is a bit too wise for that, and I think by the end of things he was sending blatantly offensive Newsletters my way with the expectation that I would complain (after which he would ‘meet me halfway’ and chop off only the most egregious stuff, leaving the still-funny but still slightly ‘off’ stuff). Say what you will, Josh is pretty wily like that.

What Next? Suits and Ties? Mandatory Anal Bleaching?

One other thing we did at some point was actually hire one of those slick, real (well, in a manner of speaking), honest-to-god Public Relations firms. We figured, it was a lot cheaper than advertising and possibly more effective. I was to be the main liaison between DreamHost and our PR people.

I was a bit apprehensive as to whether they would ‘get’ DreamHost – especially after seeing the blown-up 72 DPI logos of their other clients’ logos in their lobby, undoubtedly pulled from a hopelessly dithered JPEG somewhere – but figured that we had enough tech knowledge in-house to keep them from making any major mistakes. We had high hopes, as we were paying them many thousands of dollars every month and hoped for results.

One thing I recall is how surreal and orchestrated the whole PR thing could be at times.

Our company had set us up with a conference call interview with one of the most respected telecom industry journalists around, and we were pretty psyched about it. We were really excited about certain aspects of how we designed our web panel and hosting back-end and how they gave (and still give, really) us a leg-up on our competition. Our PR people scheduled a conference call shortly before-hand to give us the scoop on the journalist we would be talking to. It was crazy! It was as-if they had kept a detailed dossier on the guy, providing us with a fully detailed run-down of his personality and personal interests. I wouldn’t be surprised if they kept an in-house psychoanalyst around, keeping watch on all of the major tech journalists.

After the call, they gave us a full de-briefing, letting us know how we did (which I guess was pretty well, as a decent article on us came out shortly thereafter).

They say that PR is one of those things that only really works if you use it for a long time, and that it can be hard to quantify results. In hindsight, I really don’t think that the company we used made any mistakes – such companies probably work fine if you’re selling, say, toothpaste or munitions or something – but over time it became apparent that they weren’t a good match for us and we eventually decided to let them go.

Progression To… This

Even so, it did leave a funny taste in my mouth, and I was pretty sure I didn’t like it. What should have been an enjoyable blab session with a journalist became an unnecessarily orchestrated thing. While we certainly didn’t lie or do anything unethical, it did shine a light on how incredibly false and superficial most Public Relations work (and by extension, the media business built around it) is. If you read an article, it’s quite likely that it’s a regurgitated press release. If you see a glowing review of some product or another, you can almost bet that there was some wining and dining going on behind the scenes. For every Om Malik, there would be ten lazy reporters who would publish anything to fill their quota. While our PR people hadn’t yet gotten us that far, by the end I knew it was coming.

Flash forward a bit. I stopped doing PR work, eventually meandering full-time into the often painfully reality-grounded world of Abuse. I would have a chance to stretch my tech geek and coder muscles again while taking on something new – law.

Out of habit I still read Josh’s Newsletters, but had become a lot less concerned about it all. At some point, Josh proposed (and implemented immediately thereafter, as I recall) this weblog. Anyone within the company would have a chance to put their thoughts out in the open without any sort of formalized review process. Everyone working at DreamHost would have a voice, if they wanted it, even if it would piss the occasional customer (or potential customer) off.

Back In The Airport

This brings me back to the airport, circa two days ago. Radical transparency. Over the span of a few years, I went from being DreamHost’s biggest PR worry-wart to one of the biggest proponents of transparency. Yeah, sometimes Josh’s frankness still gives me the heebie-jeebies (“ninja with a boner“, Josh?), but I know what the alternative is and given a choice I can’t help but feel that we’re on the right track.

Opaque Transparency?

As an aside, the article that interested me most in that issue of Wired was one by Fred Vogelstein, a case study in transparency at Microsoft. He detailed how one lone employee at the Redmond giant braved the PR and marketing people there to set up Channel 9, Microsoft’s “unfiltered” site for blogging and evangelism.

Imagine his amusement (and mine) when someone at Microsoft accidentally forwarded to him his own dossier! I guess PR people really do keep track of this stuff.

A couple of choice excerpts for your edification and amusement (you can read the whole thing in PDF format, here):

PR Memo #1

PR Memo #2

Awesome.

Approved By Josh