Mum's the word: Microsoft board 'doing really well' at keeping quiet

Rumors and speculation are part of the game, says PR expert

Rumors aside, Microsoft's board of directors has done a good job of keeping the lid on its search for a CEO to replace Steve Ballmer, a public relations expert said.

"The key thing any board wants to do is to keep its deliberations private," said Peter LaMotte, an analyst with Levick, a Washington, D.C.-based strategic communications consultancy, talking about the public relations (PR) implications of a CEO search. "They want to do it all behind closed doors. And from what we can see, Microsoft's board is doing that really well."

In August, Ballmer abruptly announced that he would step down within the next 12 months. That same day, Microsoft said it had launched a search for its third-ever chief executive.

Since then, speculation about possible successors has waxed and waned, although all of the news reports that have named candidates attributed their information to anonymous sources. That's to be expected, said LaMotte. "A lack of hard information will create the rumor mill," he said.

What's important to understand, added LaMotte, is that there have been no confirmed leaks from within Microsoft's board, no attributable statements from anyone behind those closed doors. Names, such as Ford Motor CEO Alan Mulally or former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, have been linked to the search only through anonymous sources described with phrases like "people familiar with the situation" or "familiar with his thinking." Additionally, no dark horse has surfaced: In other words, only people with connections to Microsoft, and thus easily speculated on, have been named.

And that's the smart way to play out a search for a CEO.

"The search process only looks bad when it leaks that someone was approached for the job and then decided not to take it," said LaMotte of the biggest PR blunder possible. "You never want to read that a company went after someone, but they turned them down."

In that way, a CEO search is similar to those conducted by a presidential candidate for a running mate, a university board of trustees for a new college president, or an NFL or NBA team, or high-profile university, for a new head football or basketball coach.

"Much like a presidential campaign, a board of directors must keep it close to the vest," said LaMotte. "Of course, people will still play the guessing game."

A suitor who spurns an offer creates more than hard feelings: It can damage the brand. A first-choice who declines the job offer makes it look like the company wasn't worthy, that the turn-around Microsoft's executing would be difficult, even impossible, or that the position was defined in unacceptable terms. All would reflect poorly on the company.

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