Stifle Yourself!

August 31, 2007

As originally posted on on August 29, 2007.

Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones, But Words Can Really Hurt You

I recently had drinks with a very prominent journalist – never mind his name, trust me, he’s a biggie – who made a rather remarkable admission: “I rarely give interviews to reporters and when I do it’s always via email because I want a paper trail of exactly what I said. Reporters never get it right.” He then went on to tell me about a colleague of his who staunchly believes that the only time you should talk to a reporter is when you are promoting a book.

Encouraging, eh?

That conversation was in the back of my head the other day when I saw an article in the New York Observer about Joanne Lipman, the embattled editor of the much-hyped new business magazine Portfolio, and again while reading New York magazine’s current piece on Matt Drudge. Neither journalist, of course realizing they were in the crosshairs, granted a verbal interview. “Ms. Lipman would only respond to questions by e-mailing a statement,” the Observer noted in its article, and the other one talks about how the reporter tried unsuccessfully to get in contact with Mr. Drudge for the piece.

If there’s a kernel of truth to the journalism tenet that three makes a trend, then it is worth noting that at least that many of the best and the brightest journalists prefer to interact with their professional brethren by keeping their mouths shut and their typing fingers busy, at least when the news isn’t pretty.

Once considered the avenue of last resort because of questionable “optics,” written statements are clawing their way up the hierarchy of preferred responses when a crisis strikes. The Internet can be thanked/blamed for this shift, which some may consider an about-face in how best to deal with a crisis from a media relations perspective. Savvy PR folks, not wanting to entrust their crisis response messages to reporters who may or not use them in totality or in proper context, are increasingly capturing the opportunity the Internet presents to appeal directly to important audiences with the right details presented the right way at the right time.

Of course, there are times when it is better to simply not participate at all when a reporter is known to be working on a negative article. While there may be an initial knee-jerk response to attempt damage control by granting an interview request when you know a harmful story is in the works, it takes a seasoned professional to recognize when the potential cost outweighs the potential benefit, when doing so only serves to “feed the beast” and makes the bad situation grow.

A classic example of that scenario would be the disastrous Katie Couric article that New York magazine ran a few weeks ago. I am not privy to what went on behind the scenes or what (and whose) thought process led to her sitting down with that reporter, but I’m guessing some part of it included the hopeful notion that they could halt or at least slow down her sliding popularity and program ratings by giving a candid interview where she showed more of the personal “Today” Katie and less of the rigid “CBS Evening News” Katie. Essentially, they hoped it would remind people of the good ol’ days when she reigned the airwaves and our hearts. Instead, she came off rather disconnected and -like, which was the last thing she needed in the wake of the embarrassing blog plagiarism incident.

Ms. Lipman clearly understands the value of knowing when to hold your tongue. Although the Observer cites countless unnamed Machiavellian staffers apparently bent on destroying her, Ms. Lipman chose not to speak to the reporter. I suspect Ms. Lipman knew full well that she invariably would have been on the defensive had she granted an interview and ultimately provided more fodder and legitimacy for what almost certainly was a negative article. It is my hope that the unpleasant personal experience might make Ms. Lipman more reluctant in the future to allow her writers the generous use of unnamed sources to malign the magazine’s profile subjects.

John Mackey, the CEO of organic grocer Whole Foods, is another person who seems to understand the value of not participating in a story. If you look at the critical page-one story the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) ran in connection with the FTC leak about Mr. Mackey’s questionable business-related online posts using an alias, it’s hard to see how he could have possibly helped his cause by granting the Wall Street Journal reporters an interview. I doubt Mr. Mackey could have said anything that would have ultimately improved the tone or tenor of that article. The same can be said for Mr. Drudge and the New York magazine feature. Indeed, without Mr. Mackey’s cooperation, the Journal’s profile of Mr. Mackey overall was rather benign. And as for Mr. Drudge’s profile, I couldn’t help but feel a certain degree of compassion and sympathy for him, though I’m fairly certain that wasn’t the reporter’s intent.

Of course prolonged or absolute “radio silence” rarely – if ever – is advisable in a corporate crisis. Stakeholders rightfully demand information and corporate accountability when things go wrong. How best to serve those needs depends, as always, on the particulars of the situation. At Whole Foods, they astutely opted to address the alias brouhaha in a controlled public forum – its own website. Similarly, Brandweek reports that Mattel refers reporters working on toy recall stories to statements on the company’s website. Both companies clearly realize that sometimes there is simply too much at stake to “outsource” message delivery to a reporter who may or may not agree with your position on the most salient details.

Worth noting is a comment Mr. Mackey made in a Fortune Q&A published in the July issue (presumably conducted before the FTC leak): “The great thing about blogging is that I don’t need you journalists to interpret me anymore.”

Hmmm� I wonder what Ms. Lipman and Mr. Drudge would have to say about that. I suspect I already have a good idea how Ms. Couric feels about blogging these days.