The Perilous PR Practices of The New York Times

July 24, 2009

The well-worn cliché about the shoemaker’s children notwithstanding, logic clearly suggests that a publishing company whose major asset is the world’s most respected newspaper would know at least a little something about media relations. On any given day, The New York Times receives hundreds – maybe thousands – of pitches from PR people angling to get their client, product, company, or cause included among “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

If any company should appreciate the value of having a clear, credible, and consistent message, it is The New York Times. Remarkably, however, the Times is flailing on the PR front, and its current media offensive is only quickening the fast erosion of its prestigious brand. The newspaper’s editor and spokesperson are publicly lashing out at reporters whose stories question the newspaper’s future and the competency of its publisher with the kind of ad hominem attacks the newspaper regularly hears and knows not to take seriously from the targets of its stories.

The peril of the Times‘ PR offensive was underscored last Friday in “Page Six” of the New York Post. Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis apparently called to complain after the gossip column characterized Mexican financier Carlos Slim as the newspaper’s savior. Earlier this year, Slim had agreed to inject $250 million into the publishing company, for which he will be paid a whopping 14 percent interest. “I think the correct way to refer to Mr. Slim is that he is a shareholder in the New York Times Co.,” Mathis reportedly argued. “And we did a debt transaction with two companies in which he has an ownership position.”

I’m all for taking the offensive and playing hardball with reporters, but the tactic only works if you have formidable facts and credible arguments. CIT, a company teetering on the edge of bankruptcy last week, was saved at the 11th hour after agreeing to pay 13 percent interest on its debt injection. It is not unreasonable to assume that a company paying an even higher rate must be in a similarly dire situation. In any case, arguing semantics with the writers of Page Six is a strategy doomed from the get-go, particularly if you represent a company that is a frequent target of its ridicule.

In fairness to Mathis, she may have been pressured by management, or some outside consultant, to make the ill-advised call about their characterization of Slim. Regardless of who was responsible for the decision, it should now be abundantly clear that it was a very bad one. In the end, it merely served to spark the kind of negative attention that the Times presumably wants to avoid (corporate communications isn’t for the faint of heart).

Alarmingly, that bad call to Page Six was not a one-off. Comments Mathis and Times editor Bill Keller have made to reporters at The New York Observer suggest that attacking reporters and media outlets who write critical stories about the Times and its publisher is standard procedure – and the full sum of its PR strategy. The problem is, of course, that that is not really a PR strategy or plan. It’s a bad omen.

The Times‘ future is dependent on whether it can maintain its position as a purveyor of the best original journalistic content available anywhere. Communicating and reinforcing that message should be the driving force behind all the newspaper’s PR initiatives. Given the Times‘ precarious finances, debating whether Slim is a savior or merely an investor is akin to a spokesman for the Titanic arguing in its waning hours that the ship wasn’t sinking but merely taking in some water.

Many companies mistakenly isolate public relations as a separate silo from their core businesses. But effective and authentic PR requires a holistic initiative that integrates a broad range of functions outside of marketing, finance, internal communications, and particularly HR. Mathis can tell reporters outside that the Times‘ finances aren’t all that bad, but its own news staffers are being told the situation is sufficiently dire that they have to take pay cuts and furloughs. That is a significant message misalignment that cannot be dismissed.

If the Times is to have a fighting chance at a winning PR program, it needs a real plan that focuses on promoting, preserving, and reinforcing its superior brand of journalism. Media relations – the effective kind – should be only one component of that effort. Among some tactics for the Times to consider:

Ignore the NY Post

The Post has been trashing the Times and publisher Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger Jr. for as long as I can remember and nothing the Times can do or say is going to make a difference. We all know that Post owner Rupert Murdoch is determined to have his Wall Street Journal dethrone the Times as America’s most influential newspaper, so he has a vested interest in diminishing the value of the competition’s brand. Michael Vick has a better chance of being named head of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals than the Times does of getting favorable coverage in the Post or any News Corp. media outlet. Accept it and move on.

Don’t Waste Your Time with Michael Wolff and Other “Nattering Nabobs of Negativism”

It’s a waste of time to pursue a “charm offensive” with Michael Wolff and other media pundits who promote their own brands by trashing yours. Most Times readers don’t know who Michael Wolff is, and even if they do, they probably don’t care what he has to say. The only people who take Wolff seriously are other journalists at best. Let Murdoch, who clearly doesn’t have a lot of time for Wolff and his antics, deal with him in his own inimitable way.

Get Bill Keller Media Training — Stat!

Times Editor Bill Keller needs to learn a valuable lesson in media relations: Just because a reporter asks a question doesn’t mean you have to answer it. He discloses way too much about the inner journalistic workings of The New York Times. The Observer should pay him a stipend for all the original material he provides the newspaper’s media reporters.

For a seasoned journalist, Keller can say the darnedest things. To wit: Responding to a question about layoffs, he told the Observer that “it serves no useful purpose to talk about things that are mainly hypothetical.” That’s a pretty incredulous comment coming from an editor whose own newspaper regularly reports and speculates on the hypothetical. As well, he might want to check out some recent Times corrections or this classic before chastising other publications for “mistakes elementary fact checking should have caught.” It’s unfortunate that Vanity Fair‘s profile of Sulzberger misstated the number of Times reporters, but at least they spelled the name of your publisher correctly.

As the saying goes, “People who live in glass houses…”

Focus More on the “Nuances” of Times Readers

Amid the Times‘ unprecedented challenge for survival, Keller last month jetted off to Iran so he could better understand the “nuances” of that country. While I understand and respect that Keller wants to preserve his overseas reporting chops, the Times probably doesn’t have much of a paid circulation in that country.

The most successful corporate leaders make a point of actively meeting with current and potential customers. As the editorial leader of The New York Times, it is Keller’s responsibility to meet with readers and potential readers and hear first-hand about their concerns and interests. Traveling to Detroit might not be as interesting as visiting Tehran, but the economic and political turmoil there is quite formidable. Not to mention, the Times offers home delivery in the area.

Stop Telling Readers Who First Reported a Story

With the exception of journalists, the vast majority of readers don’t care one iota which news organization was first to report a story unless it involves something monumental like the Watergate break-in. The Times should stop crediting other media outlets for first reporting stories that it is just covering for the first time; doing so merely creates the impression that you are serving warmed over news. If competing publications want recognition in the Times for being first to report a story, let them take out an ad.

Kill Clark Hoyt’s Column

It’s admirable that the Times feels an obligation to employ someone whose job it is to air the newsroom’s dirty laundry, but in this day and age it’s a luxury you can’t afford. In addition to Fox News and the Post, there are more than enough bloggers looking to call attention to the Times‘ journalistic wrongdoings, and I’m not aware of any evidence that having an ombudsman has a meaningful impact on how reporters conduct themselves. Hoyt’s columns merely serve as a painful reminder that the Times also has its share of ethically challenged reporters and columnists– and endanger the remaining trust readers have in the brand.

Get Your Messages Straight

Accuracy and consistency of message are two of the givens of PR, yet sometimes Mathis has made statements that are subsequently shown to be egregiously wrong. I speak from first hand-experience. And I’m not the only one who has taken issue with the credibility of her statements. (Again, to be fair, Mathis may merely be following orders).

For what it’s worth, Mathis shouldn’t be commenting on editorial matters. There is supposedly a separation between the Times‘ business and editorial sides, and a corporate spokesperson shouldn’t be straddling that division. The newspaper has a “standards editor.” He should be the spokesperson on most editorial matters.

Keep Your Reporters Focused on Producing Great Journalism

I recently had breakfast with a Times reporter whose “to do list” for the day was staggering. Within hours, he was expected to file a story for the International Herald Tribune, do a broadcast interview, and then report on a major Page One story for the following day’s newspaper. Adding to the reporter’s stress was an ever-increasing mandate not to get beaten by Murdoch’s invigoratedWall Street Journal.

What makes the Times America’s most respected newspaper is its ability to provide highly authoritative and original content. Reporters can’t do this if they are expected to rush off and provide interviews for the broadcast networks and videos for the Times‘ website.

Multi-platform journalism is a great concept in theory, but in the real world a journalist can only produce a finite amount of content. Times reporters today are stretched way too thin and are being dragged in competing directions – while being asked to take a pay cut to boot. This is not a sustainable or realistic HR model. Journalists don’t aspire to work at the Times for the opportunity to provide sound bites for Entertainment Tonight.

No More Comedy Central Interviews

After watching the Daily Show interview, even the newspaper must now realize the error of its ways in letting those cameras in. What on earth were you thinking? The show’s stock-and-trade is mocking mainstream journalists and the Times no doubt represented the ultimate target. And make no mistake, Jason Jones hit a bull’s eye.

Sulzberger apparently likes to spout that he is “platform agnostic.” While I don’t know exactly what that means, presumably it has to do with making the Times available to readers via the medium of their choosing. If that’s the case, the Times needs a leader that excels at communicating on all platforms and in diverse interview situations, including comedy shows – like this guy and this guy.

When a company is in a crisis mode, a solid, rational public relations strategy is the compass that helps leadership find its way out of the dark woods. Regrettably, it seems the Times is operating without one.