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June 16, 2006

Microsoft and the media

Posted by Benjamin J. Romano at 10:45 AM

Close readers of today's news reports that Bill Gates is dialing down his day-to-day involvement with the company may have noticed a curious coincidence.

Several journalists from national newspapers and business publications were reporting from Redmond. That in itself is not unusual; media from around the world regularly flock to Microsoft's sprawling campus for news and interviews with top executives.

But how did it come to pass that so many of us byte-stained hacks were there on the very day Gates would drop such huge news?

The company happened to be hosting a media event with several top executives Thursday. It was meant to be a chance to talk about big-picture issues facing the company and tech industry in a relaxed, off-the-record setting.

After an intimate lunch with Microsoft's division presidents in the company's visitors center, surrounded by memorabilia from Gates' three decades of computing innovation, the company told the journalists that Gates had some very big news to deliver. News with a capital N, as one public relations guy said.

Journalists half-jokingly started a pool on what the news would be. Some guessed CEO Steve Ballmer would be stepping down. In the controlled chaos that ensued, I couldn't determine if anyone guessed what we were about to be told. (I should note that my colleague, Brier Dudley, was not at the lunch, and not part the guessing. If he had been, his would have been the smart money, judging by this column from two months ago.)

As the magnitude of Gates' announcement took hold, many journalists were more than a little bit peeved at the company's PR handlers. They were invited to Microsoft under false pretenses. It was a ruse; a bait and switch, some complained.

To be fair, Microsoft's PR gurus faced a substantial dilemma. If they didn't provide in-person access to Gates, CEO Steve Ballmer and other Microsoft execs on this momentous news day, they'd face the wrath of those journos left out in the cold. But if they disclosed why they were inviting everyone here -- even if they'd said it was for a big news event -- the speculation would have swirled.

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