Microsoft Needs a Lesson in Public Relations

shy guy cartoon illustration

Did I write that?

It never ceases to amaze me that billion-dollar companies like Microsoft that can afford the best PR advice mess up their public relations so badly.

Much has been written already about the incoherent and insensitive letter sent to employees in the Microsoft Devices Group that meandered around until it finally got to the real message towards the bottom of the post.

The company is going to lay off 12,500 employees.

The letter came from Stephen Elop, former Nokia chief executive, and now head of Microsoft digital.

Microsoft’s Crisis

I guess the company is into transparency, because the Microsoft News Center actually posted the letter online. Maybe they wanted to give people a good laugh.

While reporters have scoffed at the letter, pointing out its deficiencies, I didn’t notice that anyone actually took a crack at what Elop could have written instead.

Back in my agency days I counseled more than one company on how to handle the news of what Microsoft euphemistically calls “right sizing.” So I know something about this topic, which calls for crisis communications. Because that’s what it can turn out to be – witness the Microsoft debacle.

To read the original letter click here. It’s way too long, for starters, and why would the company want to give so away so much information to its competitors? The letter is so poorly written and filled with jargon that it will take your breath away. When you’re done, come on back and read my version. Let me know what you think.

What Could Have Been Said 

The point of these kinds of communications is to get out the bad news as quickly as possible. In my version, I state the cause of the layoffs — a consolidation of business units — to give context to the bad news that follows.

The excruciating details about all the plants that will be closed and the transfer of manufacturing operations should be communicated by managers to their direct reports. The news will affect each of them differently. The message needs to be individualized. Here goes:

“Dear Colleague,

This letter is to update you on Microsoft’s strategy for our digital business, which will focus on building the market for the Windows Phone. This will entail delivering additional lower-cost Lumia devices by shifting select future Nokia X designs and products to Windows Phone devices.

Our plan is to consolidate the former Smart Devices and Mobile Phones business units into one phone business unit that is responsible for all our phone efforts. Jo Harlow will lead our phone business.

Unfortunately, this consolidation will result in an estimated reduction of 12,500 factory direct and professional employees over the next year. It was a difficult, but necessary, decision so that we could become more agile and competitive. The employees who are affected will be eligible for severance benefits. Human Resources will meet with each employee to describe those benefits in detail.

Today and over the coming weeks leaders across the organization will hold town halls, host information sharing sessions, and provide more details about how the company will be moving forward to make Microsoft a leader in the niche for more affordable smart phones.

Our digital team is committed to building “best in class” applications, operating systems and cloud services.

I will be communicating with you on a regular basis as we implement exciting new innovations in our Windows smart phone business.

Sincerely,

Stephen”

What did you think of Microsoft’s original letter? Do you think my version does the job?

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Comments

  1. I think it’s interesting to see how Microsoft’s fortunes have sagged. A friend worked there in the late 1980s and spoke about their smaller culture that was in line with lots of tech companies. Another friend worked there in the 2000s in this sprawling campus. They crested long ago and are having to survive in a world where operating systems are almost an extension of the hardware (Android on phones; the X-Box and its OS; etc.).
    I think the giveaway of the Microsoft tale is how so many people are not talking about Microsoft even amid the layoffs. They can readjust or rattle apart. The Microsoft draft is coming from a company where they’re ready to gracefully contract to fit into the new world.
    Your re-draft of the letter does a much better job to put Microsoft’s position forward in a decent way.
    Shawn DeWolfe recently posted..Ninety Days Of Posts Later…My Profile

  2. Someone obviously counseled them that it is better to say too much than too little. But there is clearly a limit that was extended beyond normal in their letter. What I noticed was that the letter was all about “we” – and the sad thing is that it a “we” that excludes “you”, dear reader.
    Sue Hines recently posted..What’s Your Pleasure Type?My Profile

  3. Jeannette, wow that Microsoft letter was tortuous! Your version does the job perfectly, with 80% fewer words! You’re right, when you have to deliver bad news, provide just enough context and then get right to the point!

    • Paul — I was pretty shocked that Microsoft would not only send that letter to employees but then post it online! Wonder if they need someone really terrific in their PR department who knows how to write these letters (kidding).

  4. The original letter was/is a debacle. Just goes to show you that sometimes the people in power are not smart in every area of the business…for example human resources. YOUR letter was spot-on. I’m wondering why they didn’t call your first:)
    Jacqueline Gum (Jacquie) recently posted..DIY…Where’s The Justice?My Profile

  5. Microsoft’s original letter is mind-numbing. Most people would probably have fallen asleep, long before they got to the part about the fact that they might end up being on the unemployment line. It’s as if they tried to just bury that little fact in the middle of that mess and hope nobody would notice it. I can’t believe Microsoft posted this letter. Your letter is clear and to the point – no beating around the bush.
    Susan Cooper recently posted..I Am Grateful: #StoryMy Profile

    • Susan — I know, and the news media just ate it up with all kinds of sarcastic stories. The rumor mill probably already knew about the layoffs before the letter even went out.

  6. Obviously your concise re-write is a much more transparent take on the situation. Funny that near the end of the original email, he says, “. We will work to provide as much clarity and information as possible.”

    • Michele — Love that you mention that line. They’d better choose someone else to write the next letters!

  7. Hi Jeannette; I love that you decided to write the letter the way it should have been instead of just criticizing it. I didn’t read Microsoft’s version. The only thing worse than reading a letter full of jargon is doing it with a screen reader. You would think that with a decision that will effect so many people and influence how the marketplace thinks of microsoft as a whole they would have made sure they got this one right. I hope more people see this post. Take care, Max
    Maxwell Ivey recently posted..First listings first big sale and first hard lessonsMy Profile

    • Max — totally agree. Sometimes people in positions of authority think they “know it all” and don’t allow other people to review their work. Good lesson for all of us.

  8. Agree with you completey Jeannette.

    But all in all, Microsoft has definitely done a fantastic job of branding themselves in a positive way. They became a success by creating a monopoly and through corporate capitalism. What economists call rent-seeking Microsoft really masters. And not least, whenever a competitor comes up with a product that could challenge their monopoly they implement a code in their operating system that cause problems for users that switch. In other words, it can’t get much worse than that.

    But instead of being branded as a rent seeking monopoly most people have a positive image of Microsoft not least because of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. How many people even understand how they operate?
    Catarina recently posted..Do you have a language strategy?My Profile

    • Catarina — I actually think in recent years the luster has diminished for the Microsoft brand. They battled open sourcing (understandable because it threatened its monopoly) but in the business world I think the general consensus is they’ve fallen behind in innovation. That’s one reason why they have new CEO who isn’t one of the original founders. He’s there to shake things up. This letter describes part of that process but done very poorly.

  9. Jeannette, I love the rewrite, but I was thinking that the cause of the unfortunate letter was probably some confusion about audience. Your letter was quite correctly directed at employees and so was concise and to the point. It got to the tough stuff when it should have and if it had been meant for just employees, which is what reasonable people and certainly HR might have advised, it would have gone out on the 15th or 16th. That would have given employees time to think and ask questions before a weekend of worry and imagination.

    Instead, I think Microsoft leadership thought that they could use a handy short cut by talking to their employees and stakeholders at the same time in the same letter. Stakeholders would have been far more concerned with the future, while the other group would have been more worried about the now and the implications. All that blathering in the original letter is to tell those stakeholders, “Don’t worry”. I’m not clear that employees were anything more than another stakeholder at best or an after thought at worse.
    Debra Yearwood recently posted..The beauty of plainMy Profile

    • Debra — Thanks for the kind words. Yes, the “Hi, there” salutation is ambiguous. I think the news about layoffs and plant closings would have had to be shared with the financial markets simultaneously (preferred) or just before the notification to employees, as Microsoft is a public company. You can’t kill two birds with one stone!

  10. Hi Jeannette,
    Microsoft should hire you. Your letter is much more dignified.
    “Dear Colleague” is more personal than “Hello there.” It may also be inferred that by burying the issue a good way down the letter, Mr. Elop was not being as forthcoming as he should have been.

    Enjoy the rest of the week!
    Bill
    William Butler recently posted..How To Get Rid Of Laziness Once and For AllMy Profile

    • Thanks, Bill. I’d love to help Microsoft with its business writing! Yup, no one likes to deliver bad news, so bury it.

  11. I agree the letter was long and tortuous. It is clear to me that there were many “writers and editors” involved, and I imagine this group was a bunch of senior leaders. This is one of the challenges an internal communication pro faces! I have always found that leaders want to “fluff up” communications and this is the result.

    • Donna, I actually thought that the reason it was so bad was because he didn’t ask for help in writing it. Can’t imagine anyone in internal communications would have let this one go by without editing.

  12. They should have hired you. That was an amazing mess and so not in line with their public persona. I wonder how many people will view them differently now and not buy their products. They are not the only fish in the sea. Amazing to me how idiotic and insensitive some “heads” of large corporations can be. Ridiculous.
    Laurie Hurley recently posted..3 Mindset Blunders That May Be Holding You Back From SuccessMy Profile

    • Thanks, Laurie. It makes you understand why there is such a growing industry around Employee Engagement — how to do it the right way. That letter was the wrong way.

  13. Your letter was so much better than the Microsoft one but the fact still remains that over 12,000 people will be laid off. Saying that in a non-debacle kind of way as you did makes you not hate the company as a whole or leave a bad taste in your mouth for Microsoft.
    Jay recently posted..By: BallNChainzMy Profile

    • Jay — you can’t sugarcoat that 12,000 employees will be laid off. But you can certainly handle the announcement more professionally and with compassion for those who will lose their jobs.

  14. Wow! I was reluctant to read Microsoft’s letter but since you asked . . . It came across as cold and heartless. The message is the same we’re hearing over and over again. If I were to write a satirical version, I would start if off with “Due to corporate greed . . .”

    Your letter is is an excellent example of how a good communications expert would/should handle it.Thanks for sharing.Your examples always bring your message home.
    Sherryl Perry recently posted..How Can you Improve Your Website Blog? #FridayFindsMy Profile

    • Sherryl — it is sad that even the biggest companies like Microsoft can’t get it right. Thanks for the compliment. Believe me, the memo wasn’t hard to write. Someone at Microsoft needed an editing pen.

  15. Hi Jeannette,

    Good to be over at your blog too 🙂

    Yes indeed, words matter so much, and this fact comes out clear from the way Microsoft wrote this letter, and that too online! I wonder what their employees must’ve gone through, and to think it’s such a huge organization to have handled things in this manner…amazing!

    Your version is certainly better, and to the point – with a human touch, and that makes a lot of difference to the person reading it on the other side. After all, if nothing else, at least you can be careful of the words and not hurt people’s emotions and sentiments.

    Thanks for sharing. Have a nice week ahead 🙂
    Harleena Singh recently posted..Life Lessons From A Blind BloggerMy Profile

    • Harleena — thanks for stopping by. Yes, we can never forget the human touch. I once worked for a CEO who said the most important attribute of a good leader is to have compassion. I think that was missing in the Microsoft letter.

  16. Good Lord, the Microsoft letter was awful – long, over detailed – as you say talk about giving away too many company details – and then to cap it all, buried in all the hoopla about foreign production comes the gross term right-sizing, and what it means in terms of lay-offs. No real sense, as your letter gives, of what actual support will be given to the 12,500 employees they are dumping. The company never ceases to amaze and appall me. Interesting post as I hadn’t heard about the letter. Thanks Jeannette:-)
    A.K.Andrew recently posted..10 Ways to be Creative this SummerMy Profile

    • You’re welcome, A.K. I hate the term “right sizing.” It’s like chalk on a blackboard that makes me squirm. Call it what it is — people are being laid off.

  17. There is clearly a difference in the organization culture of a company and employees rooted in Finland, EU and those based in the USA, NA. I agree the original letter is an ineffective way to deliver bad news to 12,500 employees whether it was singularly focused, or serving multiple stakeholders. The bigger question is: what does this signal about the prospects of success – long-term – in this business combination of two known and relatively well-respected companies?
    Lyn Brown recently posted..Selling energy storage as a serviceMy Profile

    • Lyn — thanks for visiting and you make a good point. These two industry leaders should know how to get an important announcement right, but they didn’t. It does make you wonder about their future prospects.