IS THIS A CRISIS FOR TOM PERKINS?

In a recent editorial by Greg Baumann regarding venture capitalist Tom Perkins, the Silicon Valley Business Journal editor in chief made some thought-provoking observations and predictions in the wake of Perkins’ statements equating Nazi atrocities to the “rising tide of hatred of the successful 1 percent,” social inequality, his position at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and his Richard Mille watch, that have heaved him back into the spotlight he once enjoyed for his successes in the world of venture capital. If you haven’t yet, I invite you to read Baumann’s piece here. It’s a great example of how connected and inter-responsive the Silicon Valley business community is (and how colorful the discourse can get, please see the tweet by fellow venture capitalist Marc Andreessen). I’d like to take a lateral step though, and look at the situation from the lens of crisis communications.

When I came across Tom Perkins’ letter to the Wall Street Journal (the snowball that started this whole avalanche) comparing the Occupy movement to the Nazi Kristallnacht I felt my senses tingling. You see, not unlike the famous super hero who was bitten by a radioactive spider; I was once bitten by PR so bad it could only be described as radioactive. So, with my supernatural PR senses sounding the air-raid siren in my head, I investigated the situation.

My gut told me the situation was very bad. But after digesting Perkins’ handling of the fallout, I realized that the situation may not be that bad at all…at least not for Tom Perkins.

First off, let’s assume that Tom Perkins understands crisis communications. It’s not that far of a stretch considering what the man has done for five decades. Now, let’s review the basics of crisis communications – I call it the 3F’s

  1. Be FACTUAL (about what happened).
  2. Through words and deeds, express one’s FEELINGS (with sincerity).
  3. Leave all affected audiences with a hopeful “FUTURE” message.

If we look at those three basic tenets we realize…wait for it…Perkins is actually using the skills of an experienced crisis communicator and is well on his way to meeting his objectives. What’s not apparent, right away, is that the majority of people upset about Perkins’ opinions aren’t his audience. Perkins is speaking about a different crisis for a different audience – one that involves him and the remainder of the one percent (and in Perkins’ case, the top one percent of that). He’s been on message since he sent his letter to the WSJ, and in every subsequent interview.

I suppose the only crisis communication victim is Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (or soon to be Kleiner Caufield & Byers). Left with little room or reason to navigate, the firm released a simple statement: “Tom Perkins has not been involved in KPCB in years. We were shocked by his views expressed today in the WSJ and do not agree.” Perkins responded in turn that since he ceased having an active role at KPCB, “there’s been a corresponding decline in the firm.” His messaging seems in concert with the brand he seeks for himself but probably not KPCB. In that sense, Perkins’ expressed his sincere feelings and strengthened the foundation for the final step being: to leave his intended audience with his hopeful message.

Even though Perkins has become persona non grata among many Silicon Valley CEO’s, and the VC crowd, I think it may all be part of a well-crafted PR plan. Just like it takes a bit of automotive experience to spot a “sleeper” at the light, it takes knowledge of crisis communication and PR to spot someone on the move. The question now is, where is Tom Perkins moving to, and when is he going to make that move?

Next week, hopefully Tom will reveal what his future hopeful message is and to which audience(s) it’s directed to.

Dan Orloff

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