Pop quiz: What do Microsoft and P.T. Barnum have in common? They both made their name, in large part, by manipulating the news media.

P.T. Barnum, more than a century ago, was a master at media manipulation. He’s credited with creating the news conference, and once said, “I am indebted to the press of the United States for almost every dollar I possess.”

Barnum’s lessons haven’t been lost on the tech industry. Public relations has become so important that it, not venture capital or cool new technology, is the real driver of the new economy.

The demand is so great that there’s a critical shortage of qualified PR people. Microsoft alone has an in-house PR staff and uses the services of three large outside public relations firms: Edelman Worldwide, Shandwick International, and Waggener Edstrom (also known by some reporters as The PR Firm that Bill Built). Collectively, this potentially puts hundreds of PR people at Microsoft’s disposal.

What does Microsoft do with all of this flack firepower? Take last month’s Microsoft “Local Media Day” (which apparently shouldn’t be confused with National Media Year, where Microsoft spends most of its PR efforts).

About 20 journalists, both local and representing the Seattle enclaves of Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, MSNBC and others, were carefully walked through a series of briefings in an enforced casual atmosphere on Microsoft’s plans for the coming year.

It was less about news and more about advance spin control what Microsoft wants to be known for. PR professionals shepherded us everywhere, including to and from restrooms. I’d like to include pictures, but cameras were strictly forbidden at this “press” event.

This kind of heavy-handed approach is typical of that many tech firms ever mindful of their stock price, or possible IPO take to manipulate the press. That’s why the emphasis of PR has subtly shifted from generating press to managing press (and, in some cases, preventing press); not get reporters to say something about a company, but get them to say only what the companies want them to.

And many reporters who need a story, or simply don’t have the background to critically judge the slop in the trough, go along.

There are, of course, savvy reporters who see through the smoke and around the mirrors. There are likewise good PR people who actually help reporters do their job by looking beyond their clients’ immediate interest. Yet these latter seem to be about as common as the Snail Darter before the Endangered Species Act.

Tech firms do have a right to try and manage the press it is, after all their company. But ascribing anything altruistic to their PR motives especially with all the high-priced public relations talent at work recalls another saying, also attributed to, but never said by, P.T. Barnum. The quote? “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

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