When Media Darlings Become Media Targets
We thank Bulldog Reporter for their permission to reprint this excellent article.
Sharpening and re-sharpening their pencils, reporters nationwide are on the lookout for the next corporate scandal -- anxiously awaiting the next CEO misstep, slip-up, blunder, or outright criminal misdeed. Elsewhere, jilted investors, concerned citizenry, and legislators sharpen their pitchforks and call for reform -- fueled in part by tabloid-style headlines like the recent New York Post "No Shame" grabber, which went on to read, "Corporate disgrace hasn't cramped the high-rolling lifestyle of Tyco's ex-CEO, L. Dennis Kozlowski. While the shamed fat cat awaits a Manhattan trial for tax evasion -- and Tyco's stock remains stuck in the dumpster -- he's been living it up on his $25 million antique yacht and enjoying the Atlantic views from his $12 million Nantucket mansion." The upshot? The witch-hunt is just gearing up. As the market continues to slide, the press will continue to cast about for scapegoats (typically, former media darlings) to pillory on the front pages. But for every CEO justly smeared with once-golden ink, there are a thousand others doing good business by the book. So how can you ensure your CEO doesn't get caught in the melee? How to keep your spokesperson out the media crosshairs? What to do when the press comes calling -- and the news isn't at all good? We posed these questions to the Post staffers who filed the "No Shame" diatribe. Their responses:
A Turned Back Makes a Great Target. "You only shoot yourself in the foot when you refuse to talk to the media," says Post reporter Paula Froelich, who brought the Kozlowski story to the paper's attention. "Never simply say 'no comment.' It's like giving a reporter the cold shoulder, and anything is better than that." Froelich adds this perspective: "Kozlowski looks lame right now -- and it's all because he didn't return our calls." While she agrees some matters, especially pending cases, should never be openly discussed with the press, she also suggests that the story would have been less severe had Kozlowski called back and said simply, "I'm sorry, my attorneys have advised me not to talk about this matter." Staff reporter Bridget Harrison, who actually filed the piece, agrees: "I think 'no comment' is so overused that people equate it with guilt or stonewalling. Kozlowski's attorneys were probably running his media relations -- and the result was that by saying nothing, he looked even worse." She offers yet another example: "Martha Stewart should have come out with a pleasant comment like, 'This matter is still being investigated and I am concerned about my shareholders.' Instead, she skirted the issue, glared at reporters, and came across looking guilty. That's what gave the story legs."
Reporters Want -- No, Need -- Your Side of the Story. Harrison says numerous attempts were made to reach Kozlowski before the story was filed. "We tried to contact him via phone and in person," she says. "We even went to his property to speak with him but were escorted away by his wife, who threatened to call the police. "In situations like that we always tell them who we are with. We don't always tell them what the story is about -- but we don't just leave them out of it intentionally, either." What could Kozlowski have said to take the edge off the piece? "I would have liked him to come out and say something like, 'I'm trying to live my life with my family and friends as quietly as possible until my trial,'" she suggests. "That would have added a more human side to the story. My feeling is that, if someone is writing a story about you, you should do everything in your power to have your voice heard. Any defense you offer will do you much more good than not being involved." The bottom line: "His commentary would have made the story more complete."
Photos Are Silver Bullets. According to Post photo editor Vern Shibla, photos and captions can be more damning than negative body copy. "The shot of Kozlowski partying on his boat gave the story more life than the copy ever could have," he says. "People forget words. But photos like that tend to get passed along on line." And, he adds, "The caption didn't help, either." The caption read, "Playhouse: Dennis Kozlowski partied hearty at his $12 million Nantucket mansion on the July 4 holiday." His advice: "Always be aware of your CEO's exposure in public. We've got helicopters and telephoto lenses -- and we'll use them. In this case, someone called us and said the Tyco CEO was out partying on a boat. [The caller] was pissed, so we then went to [Kozloski's] house and they threatened us. In the end, they refused to participate in the story. So we ran what looked like a surveillance photo, which made the situation even worse -- like he could care less about the trouble he was in." To pre-empt this kind of negative exposure, Shibla suggests setting up your own photo opp: "The best way to kill a story like that is to get it over with. Don't run and hide. Instead, have someone send a shot to the wires and include a statement or quote to inform the caption. In the end, your point of view comes across in the cutline, and the paper gets what it needs to fill space." Harrison points to Allen Iverson's recent dilemma as an example: "Instead of risking seeing shots of Iverson chasing down his wife, his PR people released pictures of him sitting with his wife and hanging around with the family before Monday's hearing. The shot was picked up by the Associated Press and ran everywhere. It was a cunning ploy, and it really worked well. It gave the media what it wanted and cast Iverson in a more human light."
Realize That Reporters Are Just Doing Their Jobs. "Covering a story like this is hard on reporters, too," says Harrison. "In Nantucket, people are saying 'Get off the island, you scum!' Then you see them with a New York Post in their hands." Her advice? "Realize we're just here to file the stories and meet deadlines. If you can help us with that, you're going to make a friend instead of an enemy -- and you're probably going to get your perspective across. After all, we're working. We'll go away if you give us something to work with." Like what? "A photo, a press release, or an appropriate comment," suggests Harrison. "Put a statement outside and a picture and the story will probably go away. That's all we want, really. We're not out there to harm people," she says. "In Kozlowski's case, he didn't do any of that. We went there and he didn't say a thing, so we filled the hole." Copyright 2002, Infocom Group. All rights reserved.