I love journalists. Hell, I used to be a pretty good newspaperman myself, and the blogosphere has given me a chance to dabble in the discipline of journalism again here and there. I also work daily to convince CEOs who are suspicious of the media (is there any other kind?) that most journalists do their jobs with integrity. I annoy my corporate clients when I tell them what I believe: that you'll hear more heartfelt discussion of ethical questions in a newsroom than you'll ever hear in a boardroom.
Having stipulated all that, let's be real: Reporters are known to occasionally flip the script on their subjects.
By "flip the script," I mean they sometimes will give you the distinct impression they are writing something that will flatter you or otherwise serve your interests -- when all along they're planning to eviscerate you with the spiral binding on their reporter's notebook.
Is this ethical? Let's just say I've known reporters who feel bad about doing it. But frankly, it's a necessary part of good journalism. A classic example is brilliantly portrayed in the 2005 film Capote. In the movie, author Truman Capote struggles with his deception of killer Perry Smith; the scene where he refuses to admit to Smith that his book is called "In Cold Blood" is painful to watch.
Was Capote's behavior wrong? You tell me -- but it resulted in the greatest nonfiction book of the 20th century.
I'm no saint; I've done it myself. In fact, I won an award from the Associated Press Managing Editors of Texas the time I did it to televangelist Robert Tilton. Tilton was riding high and making millions when I talked with him in 1990. He hadn't done a media interview in years, and he chose me because he was convinced I was a naive kid who would buy the snake oil he was selling. I never lied to him -- but I also never said a word to disabuse him of the notion that I was that naive kid. My story was the beginning of the end of his ministry.
Of course, day-to-day examples of flipping the script aren't always this heroic. Sometimes people just get screwed.
So, as you prepare your CEO for that next big interview with the news media, what are the warning signs that a reporter plans to flip the script on you? Here are eight of them:
1. The journalist is vague about the story angle.
Reporters don't call you unless they have a pretty good idea what they're going to write about. For example, they might want to profile you as a fast-growing company in your industry, or they might want your take on a specific trend or controversy. If you ask them their angle and they mumble something that doesn't sound like a focused story idea, it might be because their real angle is that they think your CEO is a crook.
2. The journalist has a history of hard-hitting reporting or pointed commentary.
After being contacted by a reporter you don't know, the first thing you should do is Google them to see what kind of stuff they write. If you go through a half-dozen CEO profiles and find one coronation and five eviscerations, those probably approximate your odds.
3. The media outlet typically does not have nice things to say about people like you.
Be mindful of the slant of the publication. For example, alternative weeklies traditionally take an anti-business approach. Unless you're an upstart entrepreneur who is doing something disruptive to the status quo, this kind of outlet may not be for you. More and more mainstream media outlets are falling into political camps as well; if you're a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing carbon emissions or saving lab rats, don't go on Fox News unless you want your cause ridiculed before a national audience.
4. A competing media outlet has just said something nice about you.
Reporters hate getting beat on a story. They also hate doing the same story someone else just did. So if you've been the subject of some laudatory coverage, you're eventually going to meet up with a reporter who wants to knock you off your high horse. Be prepared.
5. The journalist is reluctant to tell you who else has been interviewed for the story.
You can learn a lot by asking a reporter who else he or she has interviewed for the story. For example, if the reporter has prepared for the upcoming meeting with your CEO by talking to a bitter business rival or even-more-bitter ex-wife, you might be in for a bumpy ride. If a reporter hems and haws when you ask the question, that might be all the answer you need.
6. The journalist is uncomfortable when asked his or her point of view.
It's often useful to ask the reporter his or her point of view on a controversial issue. Many reporters share their perspectives freely when their opinions are neutral or in alignment with yours. When they think you're full of it, on the other hand, they tend to ramble on about objectivity and how the "story is about you, not me." If they start talking like that, you're probably toast.
7. The journalist gives nonverbal clues that suggest deception.
The general clues people use to determine if someone is being deceptive (microexpressions, for example) are helpful in a face-to-face interview. When reporters are distant, make little eye contact, and seem overly protective of what they've written in their notebook, you might be in trouble.
8. The journalist makes it apparent that he or she has already done ALL of the reporting for the story -- except for talking to your CEO.
You're dead meat now. The reporter has lined up everything and just wants to fire away at you -- "I've discovered this document in your trash; I have the chatroom transcript; I talked to your mother-in-law; what's your response?" Duck and cover.
Even if you strongly suspect a journalist is planning to flip the script on you, that doesn't mean you should respond with a "no comment." In fact, you still need to provide the reporter with information and, in many cases, the CEO should go ahead with the interview.
But you'd better go into it ready -- focused for battle, talking points down cold, with both guns blazing. And record the conversation.
- Scott Baradell