BlackBerry

BlackBerry has taken a page from the Don Draper school of media relations and attempted to “change the conversation” by releasing an open letter to prominent newspapers around the world.

The letter—published Tuesday in 30 publications, including The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal—is meant to counter the torrent of bad press the Waterloo tech titan has received of late, thanks to (among other things) poor quarterly results, massive planned layoffs and a possible sale to a growing list of rumoured potential buyers (co-founder Mike Lazaridis among them).

Read: Twitter’s Reaction to the Blackberry Buyout

The letter’s main message is simple: “You can continue to count on BlackBerry.” The authors—simply signing off as “The BlackBerry team”—list several reasons for this, including the company’s strong financial position (it has loads of cash and is debt-free) and the attributes it still considers competitive advantages (such as the “mobile typing experience” and security of its phones).

And the letter confronted a big elephant in the room: Yes, BlackBerry knows a lot of business clients want to use iOS and Android devices, too, so it’s working to develop solutions to manage all three platforms “seamlessly and securely.”

BlackBerry’s letter concludes with an emotional appeal:

“Yes, there is a lot of competition out there and we know that BlackBerry is not for everyone. That’s OK. You have always known that BlackBerry is different, that BlackBerry can set you apart. Countless world-changing decisions have been finalized, deals closed and critical communications made via BlackBerry. And for many of you that created a bond, a connection that goes back more than a decade.”

The letter comes at an interesting time. In the eyes of a lot of people in the general populace, BlackBerry is already a goner. In certain circles, those carrying BlackBerrys are considered to be either luddites or quaint loyalists. When word of a bid from a consortium led by Prem Watsa’s Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd. came out last month, many critics—professional and armchair—stepped forward to eulogize the company, as if a sale necessarily means implosion.

Others seem to have taken perverse pleasure in the firm’s problems, pointing to it as proof of some inherent inability of Canadians to build (and sustain) world-class companies. (I recently spoke to Mike McDerment, CEO of FreshBooks, about the distrust many Canucks harbour towards those who think big, as if it’s somehow un-Canadian to aspire to international dominance. It’s a big problem, especially in tech, but that’s another story for another time.)

In publishing the open letter, BlackBerry has launched a high-profile appeal in the court of public opinion. To be fair, it’s hard to see what the company has to lose in doing so, but the move does a willingness to do something that too many companies avoid: confronting bad news head-on.

When your firm is embroiled in scandal, poor performance or otherwise gaining headlines for things you’d rather it wasn’t, there’s a natural inclination among many entrepreneurs to retreat and let the story run its course. For these people, to acknowledge the troubles is almost akin to admitting failure, so they stay silent and let the story “blow over.”

That may have worked in the pre-internet era, but it’s not the case any more. Stories don’t “blow over” these days. In fact, when the players involved stay silent, it only foments speculation and anger among the blogs, message boards and social-media feeds that now inform news cycles.

Read: An Insider’s Guide to PR

While the BlackBerry letter says little that close watchers of the company didn’t already know, was almost certainly scrutinized word-for-word by a team of lawyers and is dripping in corporate spin (to be fair, bumpf like “We are restructuring with a goal to cut our expenses by 50 percent in order to run a very efficient, customer-oriented organization” does sound nicer than “People will lose their jobs”), it has created a big news story—one that mainstream media outlets the world over have picked up—that is, if not overwhelmingly positive, at least neutral in tone. Considering the negative buzz around BlackBerry in the past few months, that’s actually quite the coup.

It’s impossible to know whether a restructured/pared down/reprivatized BlackBerry will thrive. But it’s encouraging to see that the company is at least willing to admit, in a very high-profile fashion, that there’s substantial room for improvement. In today’s media landscape, that counts for a lot.

Deborah Aarts is an award-winning senior editor at PROFIT Magazine. Her coverage of opportunities and challenges for Canada’s entrepreneurial innovators covers HR, leadership, sales and international trade, among other topics.

More columns by Deborah Aarts

Do you think BlackBerry’s open letter will do anything to change public opinion? How important is it for embattled companies to go on the PR offensive? Share your thoughts by commenting below.

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