By Adam Lashinsky
December 24, 2008

A couple years ago, right around the time Dell’s exploding laptop batteries were getting a fair amount of media attention, I had breakfast in San Francisco with a senior Dell executive. He was seriously annoyed by all the focus on Dell (DELL), even though his company wasn’t the only one with the spontaneous combustion problem caused by Sony’s (SNE) batteries.

I used, with little success, an explanation I like to give subjects trying to understand their media coverage. It revolves around a key scene in the fabulous Ron Howard movie “The Paper” in which a tortured city hall official pleads with a columnist to know why the latter is targeting the former in his columns. “You don’t get it, do you,” replies the news man.  “It’s your turn.”

My point then was that Dell, which had been among the smuggest of successful companies — ‘Our business model is our innovation’ … Michael Dell saying in 1997 that if he ran Apple (AAPL) he’d “shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders” — was about to experience the reverse of adulation. When you brag on the way up your critics will gloat on the way down. The mistake is to think the media takes sides. Not really. It joins in the praise as well as the scorn.

Anyway, fast forward to 2008, and it’s interesting to see just how defensive and downright snippy Dell has become, having been humbled by the likes of once lowly Apple and the former PC industry doormat, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ). Michael Dell, the current and former CEO, clearly picked the wrong reporter to get his back up with when he told Ashlee Vance of the New York Times, “I don’t appreciate the tone of your reference,” in response to a question about Dell’s culture. (My only quibble with Vance’s article is that it doesn’t explain why acquisitions are necessary for Dell. I don’t doubt that they are. I’d just like to have had it explained to me.)

More recently, Dell has been publicly suggesting that it’s greener than Apple, using the kind of intemperate and schoolyard-like taunting one typically doesn’t see from Fortune 500 companies. (Read John Paczkowski’s spot-on overview, titled, “Dell Green, All Right — Green With Envy.”)

It’s easy to understand why Dell (the person and the company) are so sensitive. Its once world-beating stock trades where it did about 11 years ago. Its management has largely turned over. Its reputation lags the competition.

Will Dell have its turn to shine again? Most likely. First, though, it’ll  have to lose the attitude. Then, when it starts to succeed again the ‘Dell is Back!’ stories will appear.

And the cycle will begin anew.

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