Do Conan and Google share an agent?

Commentary: The folly of the publicized bluff

Or is the government of Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao really a puppet regime for the true ruler of the most populous country on earth, NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker?

Either of these scenarios MUST be true given the eerie parallels between the two biggest public-relations nightmares raging in media circles this week.

Both Google's announced "review" of its presence in China and Conan O'Brien's stated refusal to go along with NBC's proposed 12:05 a.m. version of "The Tonight Show" are essentially threats of withdrawal.

And therein lies an uncanny strategic similarity. In stopping just short of following through on their respective threats, Google and O'Brien have revealed, to borrow from poker parlance, their "tell": They're both bluffing because they lack the leverage to do what they say they might do.

It's a slip written all over their respective statements. O'Brien's may be the more bizarre gesture of the two, a rambling valentine to late-night traditions that won over many with its sincerity. But it also confused some bloggers into thinking that O'Brien had resigned from "Tonight" when he actually hadn't. You can hardly blame them with lines like, "But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is ("Tonight's") destruction."

Conan, if you feel so passionately about being a conscientious objector, why didn't you actually resign?

Publicly flirting with the idea of resigning, rather than actually doing so, is a desperate cry about the corner into which NBC has painted him. He wants to hold on to the current version of "Tonight," and is hoping to whip up enough public outcry that puts NBC on the defensive and makes the network look like The Enemy.

Not so, says O'Brien's manager, Gavin Polone, who told the Los Angeles Times, that this was a very personal message from O'Brien, nothing more. "It's not about strategy and contracts," he said.

Which means this is exactly about strategy and contracts. And it's a flawed strategy. Sure, O'Brien is making NBC look bad, but NBC has looked bad ever since this doomed experiment putting Jay Leno in primetime first started. A fresh wave of criticism isn't going to fluster Zucker & Co.

NBC has already bent over backward in hopes of reversing damage to its brand by allowing O'Brien to hold on to a postponed version of "Tonight." They'd probably just as soon pay the massive penalty that comes with dropping O'Brien and give Leno back "Tonight." Legally speaking, I'm willing to bet moving "Tonight" along with O'Brien also keeps the network from breach of contract.

O'Brien's camp probably knows this, but their star is too overly sentimental to see the gift horse's mouth staring him in the face. O'Brien's statement is reflective of the bind in which he finds himself, a display of agonized inaction that will bring him sympathy but not the arrangement he so desperately wants.

The whiff of bluff also permeates Google's sudden signaling of an about-face in the Chinese marketplace. In a post on its own official blog Tuesday, the company indicated that "we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China."

That's a nice way of saying Google would pull out of this massive region, a place where Google has been upstaged by homegrown Baidu. Nevertheless, the upside in China is still so tremendous that Wall Street shuddered at the thought of Google going away.

Google cites evidence of a recent "cyber attack" that could have compromised the privacy of its Gmail users, particularly the human-rights activists whose e-mail was being targeted. Critics have pointed out this is probably hardly the first time Google and other companies have been subject to such invasions, either.

It's a particularly toothless statement also given the fact that Google doesn't ever come right out and said that China is hacking into its system for totalitarian purposes, a dead giveaway that Google is looking for some kind of new understanding with China. 

Google's problem with being in China, where censorship of search results is required, has been well-documented. If its dudgeon was high enough, Google would have hightailed it out of this territory long ago.

Just as O'Brien's half-step away from resignation represents a miscalculation, so too Google's trial balloon here. If their convictions were as resolute as their public statements made them out to be, measures would be taken prior to these statements, not be dangled into the what-if future. It doesn't matter what you say when inaction speaks for itself.