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Microsoft's CEO search and the art of non-denial denials

Gregg Keizer | Dec. 17, 2013
Once the practice of politicians, temporizing by the likes of reported candidate Alan Mulally is now the norm

It wasn't always like this.

"The non-denial denial developed into an art form in Washington D.C.," said Grabowski. "But it's leached over into the corporate world."

The phrase has been credited to Ben Bradlee, former editor of the Washington Post, who coined the term in the early 1970s during the newspaper's investigation of the Nixon administration's part in the Watergate break-in. But the practice, once limited to politicians, has been taken up by others, including head coaching candidates of professional and college teams, and, not surprisingly, by top-tier business executives.

The reason?

"It really wasn't that long ago when CEOs were not compensated, not courted as they are now," said Grabowski. "But now, people see these individuals as stars. Everyone is invested in the stock market or corporate America now. The rise of 401k plans heightened the interest in CEOs. In the 30s, 40s and 50s, the media covered unions and labor-management issues. Now we cover personalities."

Issuing a "no comment," said Grabowski, was even worse than a non-denial denial in the eyes of the press and the public. People expect these celebrity CEOs to say something when asked.

"We would advise a client to keep quiet, not make extra waves, if they could get away with that," said Grabowski. But increasingly, that's not possible. "That's something you could so as a CEO of a major organization maybe 15 or 20 years ago. But the media spotlight is too high now, like on major league ballplayers, to not say anything."

So rather than simply shut up — or say, "No comment" — executives like Mulally temporize with a non-denial denial. "When put in that situation, perhaps because you haven't made up your mind or the deal isn't done or you don't want to affect stock prices, you use a non-denial denial," said Grabowski.

According to Reuters, Mulally faced questions last week from the Ford board of directors over the Microsoft CEO distraction. Other claims have surfaced recently that Mulally has receded from his former first-place position in the Microsoft CEO race, in part because of his non-denial denials.

Ford's move is easy to understand, said Grabowski. "It's been a huge distraction for Ford," he said, referring to the news cycles occupied by Mulally's possible departure when the automobile maker would rather the media pay attention to the introduction of next-generation models.

Whether Mulally is actually out of the running is unknown. Candidate speculation, as another analyst at Levick noted recently, is only that. Last week, for example, Bloomberg reported that Qualcomm's COO, Steve Mollenkopf, was a candidate; hours later, Qualcomm promoted Mollenkopf to the CEO spot, effective in March.


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