pic of the guyIn a move that may signal it is about to toughen up its political clout, Microsoft has hired Jonathan Collegio, the communications director of American Crossroads, a Super PAC that spent more than $100 million on Republican causes in the 2012 election.

While Microsoft says it has engaged the services of Collegio as a consultant so he can provide insights on education and immigration issues, Politico claimed yesterday that sources have said Collegio in the past has shopped critical stories about Google to reporters. “The move suggests that Microsoft is more fully embracing new, more aggressive tactics ripped from the political world in the wake of the company’s failure to hamstring Google through the federal regulatory process,” Politico said.

Politico has called Collegio the “Karl Rove of digital television,” making reference to the political strategist who many consider key to the electoral successes of President George W. Bush. Rove was often referred to as “Bush’s brain” and is known for masterminding attack ads. Similarly, American Crossroads, which was founded by Rove and still employs Collegio, has also shown a knack for attack ads.

It may well be that Microsoft has enlisted Collegio’s services because of his ties to Republican lawmakers and his clout on The Hill, and the company certainly claims as much. But the timing is at least a little suspect. Microsoft has recently embarked on a sustained campaign against Google, and especially Gmail, with tactics reminiscent of the murky side of politics. Its Scroogled campaign charges Google with being cavalier with Gmail users’ privacy. The campaign follows a similar effort against Google Docs last year, which suggested the business-oriented apps were just a sideline for Google. Microsoft has also launched a petition calling on people to tell Google “to stop going through [their] email to sell ads.” And it is one of a collection of Internet businesses, including TripAdvisor and Expedia, that have joined forces under the umbrella of Fair Search to suggest that Google has a monopoly on search and cannot be trusted.

Microsoft’s approach to Google with these recent salvos is kind of reminiscent of Apple’s long-running “I’m a PC” ad series, which pilloried the Redmond company as uncool, but the “playfulness” in this case comes with a much more serious edge. It is suggesting the Google is not only not to be trusted, but also that rides the edge of the law.

Nathan Daschle, co-founder and CEO of political social network Ruck.us and the former head of the Democratic Governors Association, says Microsoft’s recruitment of Collegio’s services could mean one of two things: either the company is feeling threatened and needs to resort to more aggressive communications tactics, or it is just the inevitable consequence of a company becoming so big that it has to resort to political tactics that Americans despise but are relatively effective. “Neither one of those two things is a good thing,” Daschle says.

Hiring a political operative indicates that Microsoft is going to take on much more aggressive tactics than it would in a typical public relations campaign, he says. But that brings with it a risk that Microsoft will lose goodwill among consumers. “It looks like it’s just another big corporate interest spending a lot of money hiring political guns to pursue their vested interests in Washington.”

Bill Hillsman, a political consultant and advertising executive, says that it’s usually a mistake for companies to use negative tactics in consumer-oriented campaigns because “it ticks people off” and invites backlash. While careful to state that he is unsure of Microsoft’s motivations in hiring Collegio, he says that if it is part of an effort to take on Google in the court of public opinion, the company has to be careful, because Google likely has a better brand image than does Microsoft.

“The goodwill that companies like Google and Apple have built up help them in these types of situations,” says Hillman. He also notes that Microsoft may have decided that its public image is already bad enough to justify going ahead with the attack ads anyway.

For its part, Microsoft says Collegio will be focused on policy work. “Given his political background and public affairs expertise, Jonathan Collegio has valuable insights in areas like education and immigration – which are big challenges facing our company, industry and lawmakers,” a company spokesperson said in a statement. “As we continue our efforts on our top priorities of education and immigration, we’ll look forward to benefitting from Jonathan’s advice.”

Asked in a follow-up email if Collegio will have any role in generating attack ads against Google, the spokesperson responded: “No.”

[Image via Yahoo News]