This blog is geared to explore how storytelling techniques can be applied to brand building.
But what about the story that a company doesn’t necessarily want to tell?
Like when things go wrong.
We’re about to enjoy a front-row seat to such a case study with the Justice Department calling out Oracle with the news release headline:
“United States Files Complaint Against Oracle Alleging Contract Fraud.”
Nothing says “this is serious business, mister” like when the government bestows the word “fraud” on you. Just ask Goldman Sachs which shoveled $550 million to the SEC in exchange for removing the scarlet F from their chest.
The inflammatory nature of the F-word triggers headlines like the one in the San Jose Mercury News: “Ex-employee says Oracle fleeced feds on software.”
I think we can all agree that “fleeced” isn’t a word that bolsters your brand equity (unless you’re a major league baseball team at trade deadline).
Using a few pieces from the Merc article, we can logically project how this story will play out:
“Oracle salespeople used a variety of questionable tactics to hide the fact they were overcharging the federal government for software, in a scheme that cost taxpayers millions of dollars from 1998 to 2006…”
While “millions of dollars” isn’t exactly a precise number, to borrow from the late Senator Everett Dirksen, we’re definitely “talking real money,” which has the Fed’s attention.
“… former Oracle manager Paul Frascella claimed the company encouraged its salesforce to structure deals — and even use “white-out” to hide figures on printed contracts — so the government wouldn’t learn about repeated violations of that agreement.”
The government has someone on the inside that has documented his claims and can name names. Oracle is already in damage control mode reaching out to every employee who ever shared a cup of java with Frascella. Those same folks can expect a friendly call from their local Feds.
The whistle blower, Paul Frascella, left Oracle in 2008 but filed his claim in 2007.
This means he gave himself another year to not only collect more documentation but to do his xeroxing guided by government attorneys. We can also surmise that the government probably told him when he could leave the company.
Plus, note that the Justice Department only jumped into the fray three years after Frascella’s initial claim, no doubt making sure they had an iron-clad case before going public.
Obviously, Mr. Ellison and his team of attorneys will determine Oracle’s course of action. Given the combative nature of the company, it’s possible they’ll pursue the character assassination route with Frascella. I’m sure Frascella has already taken the precaution of padlocking his garbage cans.
Regardless, it’s likely we’ll see language gamesmanship from Oracle; i.e., we did give you our best prices. Let’s step back for a moment and define this concept called “best.” The complex nature of software makes pricing extremely complicated. Are we talking about the best price for the software or the best price in helping our friends in the government achieve the best total cost of ownership, known as TCO? You see, there are so many variables that …
As noted in previous posts, you can’t separate executive behavior from the outbound communications during a crisis. They are one and the same as we saw with Toyota’s fussy gas pedal and continue to see with BP.
But when Oracle does communicate to the outside world, they can still apply storytelling techniques.
I don’t mean they should strive to entertain.
This story will be plenty entertaining without Larry channeling Wayne’s World with a top-10 list on why the government has a “shweet” deal with Oracle.
Here’s what I do mean.
Oracle is going to investigate the situation. They’ll learn exactly what went down. They’ll also decide on corrective actions that will prevent such a scenario from occurring again.
This puts Oracle in the perfect position to articulate what was and what will be.
I think I’m on safe ground in assuming there will be a sizable gulf between the two, a classic storytelling technique for creating drama.
To reach the happily ever after, you also need to get rid of the bad guys which calls for firing those who cheated the government as well as those who encouraged the conduct.
And finally, you need a hero.
How about Frascella?
Talk about an unexpected ending that will leave people aghast.
Can you imagine Ellison thanking Frascella for bringing this unacceptable behavior to his attention?
Now, that would be blockbuster.
Actually Lou, the Goldman Sachs fine was not really about eliminating a perception of fraud behind the company’s name. It was about surviving–$550m was a hand slap. Goldman was lucky to not have gone the way of Enron, with executives in orange jumpsuits and handcuffs on their way to jail. Chalk one up for Ivy League connections and backroom negotiations. But you are right about Oracle, their PR challenges and their stance. When I was a business journalist I covered them for a number of years and found Oracle to be as fierce as Microsoft in the courtroom.
Appreciate the perspective Jason.
It’s hard to personally think of $500M as a “hand slap,” but I hear you. In the context of Goldman Sachs’ overall revenue, it’s not going to cause HR to pull the jelly donuts on Friday.
I can imagine that Oracle’s attorneys know how to compete. It will be interesting to watch how this story unwinds and if it ends up in the courtroom.
Regardless, I suspect we’re going to learn more about Mr. Frascella in the coming weeks.