RIM's Damage Control was Blandly Inevitable

What can you learn from how a company takes criticism? Headlines-a-plenty today, as an anonymous "senior RIM executive" takes the time to pen an eight part breakdown of where the Canadian company falls short and what steps it needs to take if it's to reverse its dwindling market share. RIM arguably did itself few favors with its response, either, a terse and defensive blast that questions the letter's authenticity – admittedly something we have to take on trust – and then dismisses the concerns with a wave of the hand.[Image Credit: Giles Chiroleu]

"It is fair to say" the press team deadpans, "that the senior management team at RIM is nonetheless fully aware of and aggressively addressing both the company's challenges and its opportunities." As an example of an emu response, it's textbook: get your meaningless soundbite out and then quickly ram your head in the sand, preferably sticking your fingers in your ears at the same time so that not even the faintest criticisms can seep through.

The problem for RIM, though, is that even if the original letter wasn't the handiwork of a senior team member, even if it was the scratchings of a mere industry watcher with an axe to grind, that doesn't make the content any less accurate. RIM has allowed itself to become marginalized through a series of almost-theres, churning out minutely differentiated carrier variants (like Samsung, only without the scale, the rapid-fire frequency or the appeal of Android) and dipping a toe into alternative form-factors like the PlayBook tablet (like Apple, only without the consistency of OS and the cross-segment app carry-over), never seeming entirely whole-hearted. Apple comes in for plenty of criticism for many things, but the company's single-minded obsession with its products and services make sure that the user-experience is everything it's promised to be. In comparison, RIM looks like it's merely playing.

An almighty "mea culpa" from RIM was unlikely. The chance of Balsillie and Lazaridis firing off a press release confessing "you're right, we've screwed up royally and are going to rename the firm, ditch 90-percent of what we've been working on and, Nokia-style, give investors a triple-coronary as we attempt to drag ourselves out of chaos" was even less probable.

As Nokia demonstrated, admitting failure – in the Finns case, by acknowledging that Symbian had seen its day – without having an alternative plan to wheel out there and then can mean instant death to your share price. If you're the biggest mobile phone vendor in the world, then perhaps you can stomach that, especially with your entry-level handsets selling by the bucketload in emerging markets and providing a little bridging time until your new strategy kicks in. If you're RIM, without the benefit of a Series 30/40 equivalent to help you keep paying the bills, consigning your imminent line-up to the "dead before it launched" bin could prove terminal.

The proof of the pudding will take a little longer to appear. That's not what either media or investors like to hear – we want instant reactions, headline-friendly soundbites and as much drama as the audience can stomach – but it's a safer approach when you're trying to turn your company upside-down without scaring the horses at the same time. RIM's salvation will either come with a bang or fizzle into myopic failure, and no amount of damage control today will make that any easier.