In Defense of Corporate Spin Doctors

For a good many years, I ran corporate marketing and communications for some well-known technology companies. Some garnered significant business media attention, which means I was the face of the company to the likes of the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Business Week, CNN, CNBC, and others.

In short, I was a spin doctor, a high pressure job that kept me on my toes. And I loved it. While the term spin doctor has derogatory overtones, it didn't feel that way at the time and it doesn't feel that way now. It was always clear that I worked for my company, its shareholders, its employees, and in a broader sense, its customers.

It was also clear that I did not work for the public and I certainly had no duty to anybody's idealistic vision of ethically or morally correct corporate executive behavior. I was hired and compensated to do a job and my goals were clear to me, my CEO, the rest of the executive management team, and the board of directors.

If that sounds defensive or combative, that's because I've got an idea. How about I let you, the reader, in on a couple of inside stories, a look under the hood of spin doctoring in corporate America and the fine line that executives sometimes walk to be good at their jobs. Besides, while I'm proud of the work I did, you might feel otherwise. And who knows, both of us might learn something.

Anecdote #1

Even I have to admit that the rhetoric spewed by corporate spokespeople often sounds a little too good to be true, to say the least.

Back in the 90s, everything that Texas-based microprocessor maker Cyrix did was fantastic! Our processors were the most innovative, most powerful, most highly integrated, fastest, lowest cost, blah, blah, blah in the marketplace. The processor gods blessed everything we designed. Customers were lining up around the block. Our competitor, Intel, was the devil incarnate.

But that's not even close to the whole story.

In 1997, National Semiconductor acquired Cyrix for $650 million or so. Soon thereafter, Cyrix imploded, and National blew about $2 billion before it was all said and done. Today, Intel's still the world's largest semiconductor company. And Cyrix is gone. Guess we weren't really the blah, blah, blah, were we?

Anecdote #2
In late 1994, the press reported a bug in Intel's flagship Pentium Processor. Intel took a big media hit for the way it handled the crisis. Then, in 1995, a couple of research analysts reported some problems with Cyrix's 6x86 processors at high ambient temperatures. The fact that we shipped those analysts the motherboards to evaluate our product is ironic.

Well, it took a week for our engineers to figure out what was wrong. The problem was that our motherboards used an Intel chipset, and Intel had changed the timing on one its chips without alerting us, a competitor. Guess they just forgot.

That week, that agonizing week, was the longest week of my life. The media swarmed, our resellers freaked, and our customers called the hotline. Folks tend to think about consumer problems as black and white, but there's always a gray period when you really don't know what's going on.

During that time, I was consistently quoted saying that there were no thermal issues with our processors. That did turn out to be true. Our chips were fine. It was the chipset timing that had changed.

You might say, Why not just tell the truth? Say your people are working on it but you don't know the answer? Because, our sales would go to zero, our resellers would switch to the competition, our stock would tank, our shareholders would sue, and I'd get fired.

I think that's called a no-win situation, but for me, it was my job. On any given day, you listen to folks who do the same thing for a living. What do you think? Manipulative? Morally bankrupt? Thankless job? Noble profession? Big cojones? Or all in a day's work at corporate America?