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March 28, 2007 1:17 PM

How Microsoft manipulates the media

Posted by Brier Dudley

Alternative headline: Did the Long Tail guy get wagged?

What am I talking about?

Wired has a story about Microsoft becoming more transparent and using blogs and other Web tools to have more conversations with customers and software developers.

It turns out Microsoft evangelists like Charles Fitzgerald placed (planted?) the story idea with reporter Fred Vogelstein and Wired's editor, Chris Anderson (the "long tail" guy). They took the bait and, during Fred's reporting, Microsoft's PR firm inadvertently sent him a briefing report that included details of how Microsoft was orchestrating the story.

Today the Wired guys bemusedly shared the details, after putting the story Microsoft planted on the cover. Amazing.

From Anderson's blog:

On a personal note, it's kind of freaky to read the memo describe how I was wooed (even manipulated, if you want to think of it that way) into commissioning the piece:

"CharlesF met with Chris Anderson during his fall tour in '06, placing the idea that Microsoft is thinking differently and creatively about its outreach.... Dan'l Lewin met with Chris Anderson in October and also emphasized the company's work in the arena, pushing the story further... Jeff Sandquist traveled to the Bay Area to meet with Chris and his editorial team. They were highly engaged in Jeff's conversation...."

And so on. 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? The mind reels....

Why not pull the story and run something else after it became evident how clearly it had been shaped by Microsoft? There's plenty to write about.

Fred's a great writer and he's written super stories about Microsoft, especially at Fortune, but I wonder what readers will think about his stuff now.

Maybe it's sour grapes, but the briefing confirms my suspicions he's been getting the red carpet at Microsoft (leading to those framed magazine covers hanging in Building 34) while provincial reporters are lucky to get 15 minutes with Bill or Steve in a Las Vegas hotel suite once every few years.

Wired posted the Microsoft briefing online. It's perfectly normal for a company to brief executives before an interview, and for P.R. types to pitch stories, haggle with reporters and track their progress. But the amount of control they exerted over this story is stunning.

An excerpt:

We're pushing Fred to finish reporting and start writing. I will connect with him Monday and based on that call we may have Charles provide Microsoft's final, closing comments given Fred's emphasis around Charles' involvement and his question to you today around any discussion that went on below you in the organization. Your emphasis on being connected to your org and the discussion around Channel 9 was ideal and we'll want to emphasize the broad support around the direction.

• We will continue to push Fred to make sure there are no surprises. We'll also be working with him on any art that Wired is likely to use.

• We anticipate an advance draft of the piece by mid-March with the final hitting newsstands at the close of March for the April edition.

Perhaps they'd like to suggest a headline as well?

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