PALO ALTO — Even by the standards of Silicon Valley, it was a high-voltage party.
Among the guests were the heads of Apple Computer, Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, venture capitalists Ben Rosen and Arthur Rock, and technology analysts and market researchers galore.
"If someone were to drop a bomb here," Rosen quipped, "I'd invest in Japan."
The gathering's host, resplendent in red tie and white sports jacket as he greeted new arrivals near a buffet groaning with caviar, smoked salmon, roast beef, crab and shrimp, was an unassuming man known to most of his guests simply as "Regis."
For the uninitiated, that's Regis McKenna, Silicon Valley's preeminent public relations man. He has been called a "guru," "czar," "wizard," "Svengali," even "philosopher king." Some of the accolades come from reporters who depend on Regis McKenna Inc. for press kits and interviews with the firm's corporate clients. Clearly, this is a man with clout, and he and his associates don't mind letting people know about it.
"This agency knows more about Apple Computer than Barbara Krause (Apple's in-house public relations chief)," asserts Andrea Cunningham, who is Regis McKenna Inc.'s group account manager for Apple.
McKenna is best known for taking the story of Apple Computer's founding in a Palo Alto garage by a couple of young entrepreneurs and weaving the tale into part of our national folklore. He also helped popularize Intel's microprocessor, or "computer on a chip," and focused attention on the wonders of Genentech's gene-splicing technology.
More recently, by skillfully doling out facets of the story to different publications, he was able to get the story about the introduction of Apple's Macintosh computer onto the covers of no fewer than 16 magazines. Such "multiple exclusives," an oxymoron if ever there was one, rankle some journalists who fear that McKenna can control coverage by determining who has access to a new product.
McKenna's power comes from the fact that good public relations are crucial for hundreds of small technology-oriented start-up companies. "For a start-up, visibility is the name of the game," says Edward R. McCracken, president and chief executive of Silicon Graphics Inc. Visibility can lure investors and customers, he says.
"I think he truly is the best p.r. man around in the high-technology business," says Robert Henkel, editor-in-chief of Electronics magazine and formerly the technology editor of Business Week, who counts himself among McKenna's friends.
"He knows the business, and he knows the publications and their needs," Henkel adds. "But does that always result in good journalism? I'm not sure."
Some journalists chafe at restrictions McKenna imposes when he gives them advance looks at new machines. For example, reporters are asked to sign confidentiality agreements, which preclude them from disclosing details to--and thus seeking comments from--competing manufacturers.
Journalists can, of course, get comments from analysts to whom McKenna has given peeks at a new product. But one reporter frets that "few analysts will risk being cut out of the information flow by dumping on a new machine."
Nor are all of McKenna's clients impressed with what his agency has done for them, especially some clients who were drawn by an adulatory 1982 Fortune magazine profile, which stated that "simply being a client of Regis McKenna Public Relations has become a kind of anointment for a high-tech business."
Take Richard Nedbal, president and chief executive of Personal CAD Systems, a 2-year-old Los Gatos-based maker of software for computer-aided design. "We felt that if Regis picked us, we'd experience Nirvana," Nedbal says.
Instead, he says, his firm's account was assigned to "an account manager who didn't understand our business, and then, after we complained, to another one. Basically, they wanted us to pay them a lot of dollars to educate them."
After six frustrating months, Nedbal moved the account to Franson & Associates, Silicon Valley's No. 2 firm specializing in high-tech public relations. Franson, he says, has helped the start-up company gain the exposure it needed to achieve credibility in its sophisticated industry.
And what about the legendary Regis? "Never met the man," Nedbal says. "He was always on tour giving speeches about how great Silicon Valley is."
McKenna acknowledges that his firm sometimes slips up. "I try to get involved with as many accounts as I can, but sometimes it's impossible."
Being Spread Thin
Nedbal's criticism is echoed by other disappointed clients, who say the quality of Regis McKenna Inc.'s employees hasn't kept pace with the firm's rapid growth. The firm now employs 152, a sixfold increase from 1981. "It's very hard to find good people in this business," one competitor says. "Regis is being spread thin."