THE CEO of Salesforce.com, Marc Benioff pulled off a glorious public relations coup today when he side-stepped an attempt by Oracle to shut down his planned keynote address at the oracle OpenWorld conference.
According to Benioff, Oracle contacted Salesforce at 3:30pm Wednesday to cancel the speech Benioff believes it was due to disparaging remarks he made about Ellison on Facebook.
Salesforce staff scrambled to enact a "Plan B" and they were very successful, booking an alternative event at the St. Regis Hotel.
Benioff was his usual dynamic self, railing on about the virtues of cloud computing and the bright future ahead for software-as-a-service. He energised the audience and made some excellent points about the future of enterprise IT.
Unfortunately, he also made one very big mistake.
Midway through the speech, Benioff was talking about Oracle ignoring the virtues of cloud computing and the risk they ran of being left behind when he made a rather ill-advisied comparison.
"It is these very forces that [say] you can be Mubarak and say 'this doesn't exist,' but the reality is that people have an alternate way of communicating."
It is one thing to use historical examples to back up your business, in many cases you can find events that indeed parallel current situations quite nicely.
Benioff later clarified this position to some extent, telling reporters, "CEOs today need to understand something, you might think you have command and control, but there is always a way around it."
"We saw that in the Middle East, we're seeing that on Wall Street, command and control only goes so far."
But Marc Benioff is the head of a cloud computing services company. Larry Ellison is the head of an enterprise hardware and software company.
Ellison is not the military dictator of a sovereign nation and Benioff is not an impoverished and oppressed citizen risking his life in hopes of obtaining basic freedoms for his people.
When you're in an insulated position, such as the penthouse office of a successful internet firm, it can be easy to lose touch with the context of the real world. In this case, Benioff was out of line in comparing his own situation to those who have put the rights of their countrymen ahead of their own lives.
To be fair, Benioff had an excellent point. In cancelling the keynote, Oracle and Larry Ellison made a big mistake. His presentation would have been a minor story amongst a stream of news from OpenWorld. In trying to shut down the presentation, they displayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the way social networking works.
But Benioff has now taken away from his own argument by drawing the ill-advised comparison. He is certainly a master marketer and a visionary when it comes to cloud computing and SaaS.
But if this quote is any indication, he also has some serious problems understanding the significance of what is happening in much of the world right now and the risks people are taking to effect those changes. µ
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