Did Marissa Mayer Screw Up?

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Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer has violated one of my key rules of corporate communications Q&A. She repeated the negative. In a big way.

In her Tumblr post about Yahoo! agreeing to buy Tumblr, she addressed the major concern of Tumblr users, Yahoo! followers and online analysts everywhere:

We promise not to screw it up. Tumblr is incredibly special and has a great thing going.  We will operate Tumblr independently.  David Karp will remain CEO…

Mayer repeated the very negative assumption that Yahoo! would “screw up” the popular blogging platform, which of course is based on the company’s history of doing a bad job with prior acquisitions. For example, Yahoo! acquired Flickr in 2005 and has been widely criticized for its handling of the once-beloved photo-sharing site.

The reason I urge clients not to repeat the negative is simple: It makes it stick. If someone asks if your company’s performance is “awful,” you don’t want to answer by saying it was not awful. Why? Because you’ll end up being quoted in a news story with something like, “Our performance was not awful,” said John Smith, CEO of Sad Corp. This sounds defensive and reiterates the charge, whether fair or unfair. Better to state this another way without the loaded term.

So, what do we make of Mayer’s decision to repeat the negative? It did have exactly the result I suggest. The Reuters headline, which showed up prominently on Google News:

Yahoo buying Tumblr for $1.1 billion, vows not to screw it up

I’m unwilling to write off Mayer’s decision so quickly, however. Mayer is, according to everything I’ve seen and read, a very smart woman. So, did she err? Or was her strategy deeper?

In some cases, the negative is so widely believed that it’s accepted as fact. The sense that Yahoo! is a company that simply cannot find its way and is a place where acquisitions routinely go to die is so pervasive that it’s hard to believe repeating the negative could cause any more damage. Which creates an interesting possibility.

What if by violating this rule and repeating the negative, Mayer did something so shocking that it really captured people’s attention? Rarely do CEOs do this and Mayer has already proven herself to be a bold leader. Just, witness the Yahoo! work-from-home scandal.

So, perhaps Mayer’s declaration that Yahoo! would not screw up Tumblr will have the desired result: demonstrating that the new CEO is aware of the problem and is addressing it.

Of course, the pressure is now on Mayer to make good on her promise and assure the Tumblr acquisition is a success. If she can, then her bold communications approach will have been validated and she will have set Yahoo! up nicely to approach other entrepreneurs. She also will have taken a big step toward raising her own stock as a turnaround CEO.

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