Oral Histories

Gary Weitman

Interview Segments on Topic: PR and Technology/Change

Gary Weitman Biography

Gary Weitman, Senior Vice President, Corporate Relations, The Tribune Company


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: 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: 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.