Stung by the public relations fallout from antitrust investigations of its business practices, Microsoft Corp. has secretly been planning a massive media campaign designed to influence state investigators by creating the appearance of a groundswell of public support for the company.
The elaborate plan, outlined in confidential documents obtained by The Times, hinges on a number of unusual--and some say unethical--tactics, including the planting of articles, letters to the editor and opinion pieces to be commissioned by Microsoft's top media handlers but presented by local firms as spontaneous testimonials.
The stated targets of the campaign are attorneys general and politicians in California and 11 other states that may be considering antitrust action against Microsoft, which is already battling a suit filed last year by the Department of Justice.
When asked about the campaign Thursday afternoon, Microsoft spokesman Greg Shaw initially said he was unaware of such a plan.
"I'm not sure what it is," said Shaw, whose name appears throughout confidential documents--some of them labeled as draft copies--that are part of a large binder of materials distributed under Microsoft's name to the campaign's regional coordinators.
Later in the day, Shaw amended his remarks, acknowledging the plan exists but saying it is merely a proposal and "not something we are moving on." He acknowledged attending a meeting in Chicago on Monday during which the plan was scheduled to be discussed in detail.
Shaw's characterization of the campaign was also contradicted by knowledgeable sources who said it was presented to regional PR firms as "a done deal" and that the firms were expected to come to the Chicago meeting with detailed plans for their states.
Even if Microsoft has now decided to abort the plan, the documents and the activities they describe reveal a great deal about how serious the company considers its plight and the measures it is willing to consider to protect its dominance of the software industry.
The entire effort is "geared to generating leveragable tools for the company's state-based lobbyists," positive press clippings that "state political consultants can use to bolster the case," according to documents.
In fact, the Redmond, Wash.-based company has taken the unusual step of arranging for one of its top media agencies to recruit a dozen public relations firms known for their strong political connections in targeted states.
A printed list of regional coordinators includes Jeff Eller, former director of media affairs for President Clinton, a firm in Michigan run by the former head of the state's Democratic Party and an Illinois company that has played a central role in gubernatorial campaigns.
Other states targeted are Arizona, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.
When told of the planned campaign, state officials said such an effort would succeed only in aggravating investigators.
"I've been battling this type of PR gimmickry for a long time, and I can smell it 40 yards away," said Michigan Atty. Gen. Frank J. Kelley. "It represents arrogance, and it's personally demeaning to me. [Microsoft Chairman] Bill Gates would have been better off if he or one of his representatives had picked up the phone and called me."
Even in the modern world of corporate spin control, the proposed plan is unusual in its scope, tactics and targets.
The campaign is being choreographed by Edelman Public Relations, a giant PR firm with close ties to Microsoft. But sources said it is designed to appear not as a major thrust by Microsoft or Edelman, but as an eruption of grass-roots support.
"They're trying to plant stories about how wonderful it is to do business with Microsoft," one source said. "I just find it outright wrong that Microsoft and Edelman are trying to hide their involvement in this."
According to the documents, local PR agencies are scheduled to begin submitting opinion pieces to the media next week, followed in the coming months by waves of other materials, including glowing accounts from Microsoft partners, consumer surveys and studies designed to show the company's impact on each region's economy.
Letters to the editor are to be solicited from regional business leaders. Opinion pieces are to be written by freelance writers and perhaps a "national economist," according to one document. The writers' fees would be "billed to Microsoft as an out-of-pocket expense."
The campaign, which could cost millions of dollars, is designed to generate positive stories at critical junctures in Microsoft's legal battles. One round of stories, a document says, "will coincide with April 21 oral arguments before U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Microsoft motion to disqualify Lawrence Lessig as special master in Microsoft antitrust case."