Interview Segments on Topic: Challenges/Accomplishments
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: 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: What do you think is going to be the biggest challenge for public relations practitioners in the next decade or so?
WEITMAN: Social media, at least as I sit here right now. If you would have asked me that five years ago, nobody would have said social media. So I think right now I would say the toughest thing is managing and understanding—I’ll flip that around—the toughest thing is understanding first and then managing social media. Understanding how to use it, understanding the attitude behind it, understanding how to use it to your favor, understanding where you can use it to respond instantaneously to something that has the ability to take down your entire business within a 24-hour period. I think all of those things make social media right now a huge challenge. And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the technologies that we don’t know exist that will three years from now make Twitter obsolete. My kids are already telling me that Facebook is for old people. It’s trying to figure out where the next wave comes.
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.