Google on PR and Communications: Seek Transparency, Avoid Trained Monkeys

Let me just start out by saying, I find it weird to be reading a book about Google. Shouldn’t it be a blog post or a Wiki or something else online?

Ok, now that I have that off of my chest, let’s discuss what two of the key executives from Google can teach us about communications. These insights come from the book How Google Works, by Eric Schmidt, the company’s executive chairman and ex-CEO, and Jonathan Rosenberg, the former senior vice president of products. 

Many years ago, I heard Eric Schmidt speak on a panel and was very impressed by his depth of knowledge, so I had high hopes for the wisdom in this book.

And it didn’t disappoint. The book is a meaty, but breezy, tour through how decisions were made at Google during the tenure of the authors.  

The premise is that the “Internet Century” we are living in today is changing some traditional rules of business. Because of Google’s position on the leading edge of these changes, the authors can share their expertise on how to embrace the new rules and make them work for your company. The chapters start with culture and end with innovation, and cover most key tech company executive concerns in-between.  

Transparency and Conversation

What can we learn from the Google brain trust on communications and public relations? 

The authors dedicate a wide-ranging chapter to communications, where they advocate for corporate transparency – “defaulting to open”, as they call it – going as far as sharing their quarterly board presentation and letter with employees and posting everyone’s OKRs (objectives and key results) on the Intranet.  

Have they been burned by this openness? Yes. But not badly. And not enough to overshadow the benefit of having everyone in the company on the same page.

The authors also spend many pages on conversation, because they feel it is the most important form of communication – one that is growing rare in a time when people’s faces are buried in a computer screen for long periods of time every day.  

So Googlers look for ways to engage in conversation. One example is Jonathan’s road trip with hundreds of product developers to see the Michael Jackson concert movie This Is It. 

Was the movie relevant to Google business? A little. Michael Jackson is a prototype of the “smart creative” type of people that Google seeks and the movie shows him pushing himself and his team to be excellent. But the real value of the trip was that it lead to conversations for weeks afterward. 

PR Advice

This brings us to their (limited) PR advice, which also focuses on transparency and conversation. 

The authors advocate real conversations with journalists and spend some time ridiculing FAQs prepared by their PR teams as inhibiting those conversations. After looking over his script for a meeting, Jonathan commented that: “if they wanted a trained monkey to give the interview, he’d be happy to arrange it.” 

On one hand, I agree with him. FAQs that include highly scripted responses to questions should be a thing of the past. Executives are often closer to the topic than the communications team and have a better sense of what they want to say.  The FAQ should then be a reminder of the key facts and message points – written in bullet form – that can serve as a refresher for the executive.

But an interview is more than a casual chat – it’s a journalist doing his or her work. FAQs work best if they help the executive to stay focused on providing the information that a journalist needs to publish a story. 

One of the best spokespersons I have worked with had her own way of eliciting conversation in an interview. She and I would work together to develop a PowerPoint presentation with a carefully constructed message. When interview time came, she would launch into a conversation with the editor, flipping the presentation over and writing and diagraming on the back in response to the editor’s questions. Rarely would she talk to the slides, but rather would flip to one or two if they served to illustrate a point.

The interview was the conversation and the presentation became a leave-behind reference document with her notes summarizing answers to the editors’ questions.

The authors point out that there is a downside to having insightful conversations with journalists. Journalists ask tough questions and meetings can get tense. Often negative statements make their way into an article. In fact, they authors say that that negativity is how you know you had a real conversation.

So, why risk a negative article through conversation if sticking to scripted messages can alleviate that? The authors say that the process yields insights that can help a company to establish itself as a thought leader. 

Some might think a push for transparency to be ironic, coming from a company with the biggest secret in the Internet industry – the Google search algorithm – but Eric and Jonathan’s advice serves to remind us that in the Internet Century, where the rules are changed and information is so much more available (thanks, in part to them), having open dialogue is the new and best way to communicate to all audiences.