The CEO and The Journalist

iStock_000016395196_SmallI was recently on site consulting with the CEO of a large, publicly traded firm when a request came in from a journalist to speak with him. I was in his office at the time, so he took the call and put her on speakerphone so I could listen in silently and offer him any post-call coaching.

Very quickly into the call, I noticed that she was not asking him any direct questions. Instead, she seemed to be fishing around. At the end of the call, I found myself thinking, “What does this lady want? Why was she even on the phone with him?”

When I shared with the CEO my impression of the call, he informed me that he’d had multiple conversations with this reporter over the course of the last six months and that she had written two articles about him and his firm for a major U.S. business newspaper — both of which were relatively negative. To make matters worse, the week before, she had written a third one reacting to something that had happened in his industry, which also contained a negative spin about his company.

My client was pissed at her, and he was pissed at himself. “Everyone told me, ‘You can’t trust journalists. They’re just out to get their story, and they’ll stab you in the back if they have to.’ I should have just told her, ‘No comment,’ and moved on.

Despite this advice, however, he had tried to have a real dialog with this reporter to clear up what he considered to be public misconceptions about his industry. He took a risk to be open with this woman, and she burned him. As a result his current stance was “She’s not getting anything useful from me from this point on.”

Hearing this explanation, the call I’d just overheard made more sense to me. My client had been willing to talk honestly with this reporter if she used what he told her in an evenhanded way. When she didn’t, the trust between them was broken. And when that trust broke, they both lost the possibility of achieving their goals in the relationship. My CEO no longer believed he could communicate his point of view to the media, And the reporter, who would like to have access to honest information from the CEO about what’s happening in his company and the industry, has burned her bridges with him.

What’s more, I realized, as I replayed the call in my mind, the reporter knew it. The call had been strange because the reporter’s real question was the one she couldn’t ask: “Are we ok? Will you still talk straight with me?”

The unspoken response to this unasked question was ‘no.’ My CEO had resigned himself to the conclusion that the conventional wisdom that you shouldn’t talk to the media was correct.

As he and I spoke, we realized his reaction had different layers to it. As CEO of a very visible company, he appeared to have made a damaging mistake. As a person, however, he felt betrayed by how she had not upheld her end of the implicit agreement between them. And the latter was limiting his ability to learn about the former.

So, my CEO called her back. “I want to talk to you offline, person-to-person,” he told her. “This is what happened for me. I tried to be honest with you, and I feel like you burned me.” He told her how he felt and what the consequences had been to his company. “I’m not going to honestly tell you what’s going on if you’re going to use it this way,” he said.

Her response? She understood and acknowledged the consequences her reporting might have had on his company.

My client explained that he would only talk to her if she committed to giving a faithful representation of what he said in future discussions.

By shifting the conversation out of their roles (“She’s a media reporter, I can’t trust her”) into a person-to-person context, the CEO was able to be both vulnerable (“I felt betrayed”) and direct (“You didn’t uphold our agreement”). In doing so, he regained a sense of empowerment with her, and created the possibility that their relationship could evolve instead of succumbing to mistrust masked by polite platitudes.

These types of person-to-person conversations are crucial to business relationships, and we don’t have enough of them. So often, we just interact with others through our roles. When we are able to put those roles aside and have a person-to-person conversation, like this CEO did with the reporter, then we can move beyond the rigidity of the roles to a more expansive, effective and often satisfying relationship.

Who do you need to have a person-to-person conversation with? What impact do you think that will have? We would love to hear your comments.

  1. Very interesting story about the impact a person can have when they step out of role and shares whats going on. Unfortunately, my experience is that the idea (let alone the practice) of being even a bit vulnerable in a business communication is rare. As well, direct communication is confused for a take-no-prisoners approach. Refreshing and inspiring to hear an alternative.

  2. Randy Cooney says:

    Maybe the CEO should have asked to see the articles before they were published?

  3. Nancy Tallman says:

    The CEO was foolish for thinking he could trust someone whose objective is to report a story. Nothing to gain.

  4. David Williams says:

    Should be a good lesson for him. If the reporter wrote a negative article, I am sure she didn’t make it up. The fact that he said some damaging things to be used in the article is the real problem. As CEO he needs to know how to put a spin on answers that won’t hurt the company. Better luck next time.

  5. Scott Vaughan says:

    You would think that if someone climbed the ladder to be CEO they would have the smarts to know what not to say that could hurt the company. It’s perfectly fine to be honest, but don’t give out all of the details.

  6. Robin Appelbaum says:

    Talking off the record may have helped their relationship, but the CEO needs to learn from his mistake.

  7. Karen Leland says:

    As a freelance journalist I read this story with great interest, as a markerting consultant I find the comments interesting as well. I can see both sides of this. I think the CEO was very courageous to step out of his role and have a person-to-person communication with the reporter. More of that authentic dialog is needed today. But I also can see why many of the comments suggest he should have had a more cautious attitude. The problem is that when we have a cautious attitude, we don’t always end up being authentic. I’ts a delicate balance I know and a hard one to strike, but I’m not sure this CEO made a mistake. I think he acted authentically and there were some consequences he then had to deal with. This article and the comments have made me reflect more on how I am when I am interviewing someone and when I’m on the other side being interviewed. Thanks for a thoughtful piece Shayne.

  8. Teresa Wolf says:

    Hats off to the CEO. Burned once, but not twice. Don’t cut her off completely either, because that could cause future negativity.

  9. Sue Adler says:

    I think that the CEO trusted his gut feelings and, unfortunately, he got burned. But his being honest is nothing to regret.

  10. Britton Nealeigh says:

    I would have done the same thing. I have always tried to be honest about things with every converstaion I have, no matter who it is with. It’s just unfortunate that the reporter had to put the negative spin on the article when apparently there was an understanding.

  11. Tracy Willis says:

    I know the feeling. I have wished several times I could take back things I have said. I just thought that being honest and direct about things was best. But, some things other people just don’t need to know.

  12. Ryan Kucera says:

    I’m not sure the reporter did anything wrong by using information that he willingly gave. Obviously she is after a story and she can’t write the truth if she doesn’t relay everything he said.

  13. Sunny Nelson says:

    This happens a lot – and not just with reporters. It even happens within businesses and often it comes back around to bite you. I’m a truthful type of person, but after many years and many lessons, I find it hard to fully trust anyone.

  14. Shayne Hughes says:

    This has been a fascinating comment thread. Initially, I was concerned by the first remarks as I feared that people had missed the point of the post. The last comments are already pushing deeper into some of the underlying issues.

    It really is challenging to draw useful lessons from life, isn’t it?

    One thread of this post has to do with learning, the other with authenticity. You could argue that the CEO should have already known better, but we’re all constantly faced with new challenges, and so we’re going to make mistakes. He was simply somewhere on that path of learning to interact with the media.

    But what do we do when we make a mistake? Is the lesson we learn reactive or expansive? A lesson like “I should’ve known better than to talk to reporters, that’ll never happen again” would be a reactive answer, reducing future possibilities. It’s a static conclusion.

    An expansive answer is one that actually gives us greater capacity in the future.

    In this case, for example, I don’t think that the CEO’s mistake was being authentic with the reporter — but more being authentic without setting an explicit framework with her first (i.e., he hoped she would see his point of view and be balanced without actually expressing that expectation, and then addressing the gap when it happened the first time). What he did at the end could have come in the beginning. Perhaps it will next time.

    If he concludes that he should never be authentic with the press again, he will be limited in how he can leverage the press to shift the reputation of his company and industry. If he learns to establish communication agreements with reporters, and progressively build a rapport with them, he stands a much better chance of having a productive relationship with the press — which is crucial for his success.

    As the last comment indicates, it is a life challenge to be authentic in our different relationships. How we address the moments when we feel burned is crucial in either reducing or expanding our ability to have trusting, reliable relationships.

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