Gary Weitman, Senior Vice President, Corporate Relations, The Tribune Company
INTERVIEWER: You now work for the Tribune Company, a journalistic enterprise and I guess my question for you is, are there special challenges in working in public relations for a journalistic enterprise as employees can be suspicious of public relations?
WEITMAN: Yes. There are special challenges and I remember one of the first phone calls I got when I came to work at Tribune Company was from a reporter at the New York Times. She wanted to know about things that she had heard about that the company was doing and (said) that she intended to report on it. I thought, ‘well now this is a little odd.’ I’m here talking to a competitor of my company, who’s asking me to divulge what otherwise might be looked at as company secrets, initiatives that we might not necessarily want to share. At the same time, you have the challenge of—you’re representing a company that is doing the same thing every day to other companies. You represent a company where others are asking everyday—hard questions, expecting to get answers. So there’s certainly a bit of a conflict and conundrum here. You have to remember that our business is journalism here so even as we’re saying to a reporter from the outside who’s trying to do their job—no, we can’t talk about that or we’ll decline comment or we simply won’t answer the question. You’ve got thousands of other reporters working for your company, trying to get similar information from other companies on a daily basis. I recognize that. The flip thing to do would be to say, well that’s somebody else’s problem, I’m in corporate, so I don’t have to worry about that. But it is a bit of a challenge. It’s also a challenge in dealing with our own reporters who will call me, as a spokesman for the company, and want information that I am from time to time not going to be able to give them. Or there may just be times when the company feels that it’s not in their interest to comment about a particular issue, topic, whatever it may be. So there are some interesting challenges. When we were a public company for instance, one of the challenges was always to deal with the reporter—the poor soul who got picked to write the story about executive compensation when Tribune filed its proxy report with the SEC. Because you wanted to make sure that that reporter got—however they were going to interpret the information as I would say to them, I don’t care—I care that you get the facts right. If you get the facts right, you can interpret it however you want. And I think it’s also hard for a reporter to report on their own company. The easy example is sports reporters who at the time when we owned the Cubs, would report about the Cubs. They felt obligated I’m sure, to bend over backwards to not appear as though they were a homer reporter. And I think at times that made them even more critical of the management, of the team than they might otherwise have been. But it’s a tightrope that you have to walk on, I think, both sides of the equation.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think your background as a journalist gives you more credibility with journalists that you end up talking to as a representative of the Tribune Company? Or not?
WEITMAN: Perhaps initially it did. I think now, the fact that I’ve been there 12 years, probably speaks more to my credibility than what I’ve done in the past. I think if anything, it may make me a little more sympathetic but I don’t know that it has much influence at this point on whether somebody trusts what I tell them or not.
INTERVIEWER: Have you seen public relations change as an industry since you’ve gotten involved?
WEITMAN: I think it’s changed tremendously. Part of that is because—just in the 12 years I’ve been at Tribune Company, the internet, the speed of the news cycle, and the rise of social media have all contributed to changing the face of public relations and communications generally. It’s a very, very different industry than it was when I first got into it in 1997 when I started at Hill and Knowlton. The Internet was just beginning to get a foothold in the communications process. People were just discovering the kinds of things that they could begin to use the Internet for. You had, back then, still at that time, three or four TV networks; no social media to speak of. A news cycle you could pretty much predict. Then came the rise of cable, cable news, a variety of broadcast outlets, the Internet and social media. And I think (there is) also a sense that the standards for what is credible reporting have come down as a result of those things. It doesn’t make great reporting less great. But what it does do, I think—what the Internet has done and the explosion of cable stations and cable networks, on the positive side—is democratizing the news. You want to get a viewpoint out there, you can do it. You want to find a viewpoint you’re in sync with, you can do it. But it’s also lowered the bar I suppose. The barrier to entry is so low now that I think people feel free to say things and to see those things get put into the news cycle; what I call kind of a giant echo chamber that is the internet and have those things take on a life of their own—whether they be true or not. And that I think has really been a disservice to both the communications field and to the public at large.
INTERVIEWER: How is as a public relations professional do you deal with that?
WEITMAN: I try to focus people on the facts. I try to focus people on what they know and what they can determine through good reporting. Don’t get me wrong; there are some wonderful news outlets and reporters. There are people doing great work in journalism. But I’ve also found over the course of now the last 12 years that people are far more willing to report rumor, to report through the use of anonymous sources, to accept something as fact that they’ve only learned by reading some other publication which is in turn sourced back to some other publication which by the time it gets around to me is fourth or fifth hand. And I think it’s made reporters far more competitive and in some respects, far lazier than I would have ever expected them to become. Because the news cycle is so telescoped and the pressure is so great to be first. Not necessarily to be right. But if there’s a rumor out there that you didn’t get that somebody else did get, how am I going to advance the rumor, even though it’s still just a rumor? And I’ll give you a couple—if you’ve got the time and inclination—a couple of examples. We have been in Chapter 11 for roughly the last three-and-a-half years. During the course of that time, various rumors have popped up about new management at our company. At various points during my career, I should have been working either for Michael Eisner or for Jeff Zucker or for a host of hedge funds. And I will get calls from reporters who say, I want to talk to you about Michael Eisner. The biggest one was about 15-16 months ago where (a reporter said) I want to talk to you about Michael Eisner because my understanding is he’s going to be the new CEO of your company within the next four weeks. So in a situation like that, I don’t expect the reporter to tell me where on earth he’s heard this but I would like some basis for why he believes that to even be true and why it’s worth a phone call to me to follow up. And inevitably I would find out that that was a rumor they heard from somebody who heard it from somebody. And I would try to remind people that number one, we have a CEO. Number two, we’re still in Chapter 11. And we have a board of directors that will remain in place until we come out of Chapter 11. Only a new board of directors will be able to choose a new CEO. And if you look at some of this stuff logically, it doesn’t hold up. So those types of things—the willingness of what I would say, oftentimes, good journalists to report these things or to repeat these things, never ceases to amaze me. I from time to time deal with the New York Post. It’s like dealing with the wizard of Oz. It’s always a flight of fancy and seldom sourced to anything that’s credible. They’ve run stories where it’s just, ‘and the word on the street is…’ And you want to say, how is that credible reporting? I can go run down to the street and scream out, ‘this is going to happen’ and that’s apparently in some cases ok to report. I think all of those factors have created a situation where the bar for the willingness of people to report unsubstantiated rumor, conjecture, has just gotten much lower than it ever was.
INTERVIEWER: You’ve talked about ethics, you’ve talked about social media and journalism—I guess my question to you is how is social media perhaps, and maybe not, made the public relations industry more or less ethical?
WEITMAN: I don’t know. I’m not familiar with too many examples. I’d be hard pressed to cite too many examples of the public relations industry using social media in an unethical way. I don’t think it’s ethical, for instance, for a communications person to be writing a blog for the CEO. First of all I just think it’s bad practice. But I also think there’s a certain unethical aspect to it. Although I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with a communications person sitting down with the CEO, going over what they want to say or would want to put into a blog and coming up with something the CEO signs off on. But engaging in tweets back and forth where you’re potentially posing as the CEO or you’re maintaining the CEO’s Facebook page or you’re engaged in social media on behalf of someone else without really acknowledging that, I think is just fraught with peril. And I think it’s bad practice and I think it’s potentially unethical in terms of—depending on how you approach it or what you’re saying in it. And I think it’s much easier to do those kinds of things now. It’s much easier to insert yourself into a dialogue and to steer people—or to try and steer people one way or the other where you’re potentially posing as a housewife, an iron worker or whatever when you’re a communications professional trying to steer a debate. I think it’s too easy these days to hide behind a false identity and the internet has made that possible and I think that’s always like I said, bad practice and unethical.
INTERVIEWER: I just want to ask you to talk a little bit about the ethical challenges that you might have faced in your career that are part of your work.
WEITMAN: I’ve never been asked to lie. I’ve never represented a client that I didn’t want to represent. I’ve never represented a client that I felt was doing bad things. I have from time to time, on the private side, on the corporate side…you have to be a strong advocate for a communications strategy but you also have to be willing to, I think, put yourself in the mindset of those running the business of which you’re a part; and that you’re willing to say, I’ve made the strongest argument I can make for why we ought to, for instance, tell our employees about something. Why we ought to publicly say something about this as a company. And if others running the company at that stage are saying to you—I hear you, but we’re not going to go down that path right now, for business reasons—you have to be willing to understand that and understand why. I’ll give you an example. Back when Tribune Company was going through its strategic review of alternatives for a new business model, there was a lot of in fighting on the company’s board of directors. We knew that there were board members who were talking with the press in an effort to undermine the CEO and the chairman of the board at that time. We discussed whether we should publically respond to those things that we knew had been leaked; whether we should publically respond to those things that had been said. And I’m very fortunate to work at a company where one person’s unethical behavior doesn’t mean you answer it with similar unethical behavior. It wasn’t so much a dilemma for us because we had a code of doing things and board dealings, board negotiations, board discussions stayed within the boardroom. So we didn’t comment on and we didn’t respond to those things that were being said. And we probably, as a result, from an image standpoint took a few hits. But I think everybody also felt better for at least having followed the company’s code and made the ethically right decision on how to act during the situation. Because I think also when you start, it’s very easy to peel back ethical behavior bit by bit, by bit, by bit and a little bit here and a little bit there leads you to making easier decisions when you’re faced with something that’s clearly unethical. And you’ve said to yourself—we didn’t do that and we didn’t do that, well now I’ve compromised here and I’ve compromised a little bit there so the next step is a fairly easy one to make and, I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve felt like that’s been an issue for me at Tribune Company.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s talk about trust and credibility for a few minutes. How do you build that within an organization?
WEITMAN: I think you have to be willing to work with everybody. You have to be a team player. You have to step up and be willing to help. And I think you have to exercise good judgment. In doing those things and doing it again and again and again over time, you engender trust and you engender a certain level of confidence that enables you, down the line, to push back when you feel like you need to. To speak out when you feel like you need to and to have your opinion matter—even if it’s not necessarily an opinion that everybody around the table agrees with. I think you have to be willing to demonstrate you are able to and willing to push back from time to time because I think actually, that engenders even more credibility. And you have to also be willing to know when to fold up your tent and say okay, I lost on this one—and not have it matter. This isn’t something you can take personally. I work in a large company. When I joined the company there were 24,000 employees. There were dozens of senior level managers…there were probably 100 senior level managers across the company—all of whom look to me to lead the communications function. All of whom had very different personalities. All of whom had to respond to their own business needs and concerns. I have built credibility with that group by demonstrating good judgment and by being willing to listen and to go the extra mile for them. Which at times literally meant whatever time of day or night; I live by my cell phone and my email. But after a while what happens is, people know they can rely on you and so they come looking for you. And more and more—I know you’re going to get to this—more and more I feel like, my job is less about the practice of public relations and more about the art of management consulting than it’s ever been. I have advised the CEO of our company about everything from security issues in the wake of 9-11 to safety issues relating to our employees to business continuity plans that have to get developed to layoffs to employee benefits to healthcare benefits to a variety of topics that aren’t just always about communication. In fact, there are moments where you will sit down to pull together a presentation and an executive will look at you and say, well what do you think I ought to say? Now you can cower from that—you could sit there and say well geez I don’t know, you’re the CEO…you’re supposed to be telling me. Or you can come in with a sense of what the company is about, what you think its mission is or ought to be and you can be—within reason— be bold enough to say, were I presenting to this group, I’d want to know about, X, Y and Z. I’d want to say to them, the following six things. I’ve had more than my share of executives say, ‘that sounds good, let’s do that.’ In the wake of 9-11, I sat down at the end of the day, on that day with the chairman and CEO of the company and with the treasurer of the company. The treasurer happened to have the building security people reporting up through his organization. We had spent the day communicating to our employees about early dismissal, about coming back to work later in the week, etc. The three of us sat down and the CEO and chairman looked at me and said, what else can I do to make our employees feel safe? What can I do around the building to make our employees feel safe? What can I do at our business units to make our employees feel safe? And yes, inside there’s part of you that says, I’m the communications guy, I shouldn’t be advising you on this stuff. But there’s also part of you that seizes the moment and says ‘well, as an employee of this company, I don’t like the fact that the entrance to our building isn’t monitored by security personnel. Here’s what I would do. We can put security personnel in place in the lobby. We can develop an ID system where people have to card their way in to get access. We can improve the security patrols around the building. We can put cameras up in the parking lot.’ There are a variety of things you can suggest, none of which have anything to do with communication or public relations. They have to do with making your employees feel safe. And that was a situation that I loved because I felt like this is a situation where you’re working as colleagues, together to deliver something better for your employees. And who wouldn’t enjoy that?
INTERVIEWER: And there’s always, ultimately, a communications function involved in these things right?
WEITMAN: Yes. What the CEO and chairman was essentially saying to me is, what can I tell our employees that will reassure them about our environment? When you ask the question like that, it is incumbent upon you to know what the existing security and access systems are and to know what you might want to recommend that would make people feel safer. Eventually you’re going to be communicating about what has been done or is being done. When Arthur Andersen was imploding, when there was all sorts of focus on corporate ethics and business models, when the world was discovering that people were trumping up earnings reports and things of that nature, I sat down with the CEO and said we need to talk to our employees about why that can’t happen here; about the checks and balances we have in place. Especially since so many of our employees own company stock. We need to be reassuring them that Arthur Andersen can’t happen here; that the company’s ethics and the checks and balances that we have in place are such that it can’t go on here. And we did. That’s an instance where you get to go to the CEO and recommend something that may not even be on his radar screen. And hopefully you’re working with a CEO that looks at that as an opportunity and says, ‘wow, you’re right, let’s go do that.’
INTERVIEWER: Do you think your experience, in terms of counseling and advising, is typical of folks in your position?
WEITMAN: I think at the best companies it is. I hope it is. But I think at the best companies it probably is. In order to do your job effectively you need to have unfettered access to the executive management team. You need to be a part of the executive management team. The thing that I love probably most about my job is the fact that I sit kind of at the hub of everything. I’m not the guy who’s going to make the decision that we should invest in this or change this policy for our employees or decide we’re going to divest this business. But I am in a position where when I’m knowing about those things, I can advise the executive management team, of which I’m a member, how it’s going to be perceived by our employees. How is it going to be perceived by the market place? How is it going to be seen on Wall Street? And what are the implications for the different audiences that are going to be affected by the decisions that we make? And then I can be in a position of being a true consultant—not just on the communications side but on things that can be done to mitigate the negative impact of something we might be doing. And those things I think are important and that’s what makes my job fun. It’s what turns me on about what I do.
INTERVIEWER: How manageable is social media because every single employee in your company is…
WEITMAN: It shouldn’t be. That’s part of it. Yes, every single employee in our company has the capacity to have their own Facebook page—absolutely. And on a personal level, they absolutely should if they want one. On the other hand, nobody should be speaking on behalf of the company on social media that isn’t authorized to speak on the company’s behalf through social media. And you should have a social media policy that people understand; when you’re going to and how you’re going to discuss the company’s business decisions, etc., via social media. And then you have to enforce it too. I think that you have to manage or try managing social media within your company, especially within those companies that are built on a foundation of trust, like a media company. People have to be able to trust that what they read in our newspapers, what they read online, what they see in our newscasts; is credible. And that can be undone with a thoughtless tweet, a bad Facebook posting. Hopefully you’re managing the social media process better than simply letting it be the wild, wild west where your employees are free to do whatever they want, acting on the company’s behalf.