The One Secret Technique That Drives Journalists Insane
Ha ha ha!
These ‘Lying to Yourself’ posts (1,2) are for founders, c-suite, and other executives who are engaging PR or comms for the first time. (All are welcome, of course.) They are public first drafts. I reserve the right to feel differently in future iterations.
You’re a founder. You’ve taken countless risks to keep your vision alive. Maybe it’s not even your original vision, but somehow you’ve kept your head down and made something happen.
Then you get an email from a reporter. They’re wondering if you might have some time to talk. Or even just answer a few questions via email.
You hadn’t been courting media coverage. You feel a little flush. What does the reporter want? They’re at a pretty big publication—one you’d love to have your company mentioned in—so maybe it’s fine. Good even.
You agree to meet the reporter for coffee. They’re nice! They’re listening to your story, nodding when you talk about some of the times you thought your company might fail. You try to pick up the tab, but they smile and refuse. You both sort of laugh—oh right.
Three weeks later you wake up to a bunch of texts. Your company is in the news. And it’s…well, it’s not great.
You’ve been quoted a couple of times. Nothing awful, but without the context of the whole conversation your words can be construed to be a little more bloviating than you meant them to sound. The ironic tone you took in conversation didn’t come through. And the whole riff about how hard it is to find good employees? No other way to parse it. You sound like a prick.
You’ve got to do something, you think. This isn’t fair. You have a hundred different things snapping at your attention every day, and now this reporter shows up out of nowhere, disarmingly enthusiastic, and all the sudden you’ve got yet another crisis on your hands.
Oh, yeah, Twitter. Yikes. It’s not good. Someone has shopped your face onto a meme that doesn’t even make sense, but the tone still comes through. Someone who worked for you a couple of years ago has several hundred retweets of their thread that shares, for the first time in public, they note, how they didn’t feel safe bringing up some of their complaints about your leadership in meetings. More memes. The one with you, Elon, and Bezos is almost flattering. At least you’re important enough now to be a cartoon captain of industry.
Okay. You’ve handled worse. You’re a humble person. And you have nothing to hide.
It’s the next morning. Your head of HR quit after what you still don’t see as a tweet “storm.” She’ll stay quiet for the next couple of weeks, she said, but someone at another company just texted you to ask you if she’s any good. It doesn’t make sense. You just explained in public what the reporter got wrong. It wasn’t pride. This has hurt your company and the people who work for you. You can’t let your people think you’re weak, that you won’t stand up for yourself, the company, them. You have a responsibility.
Like your fellow founder buddy said last night over a drink, the problem is modern media itself. They aren’t going for the truth. They’re going for quick hits, stuff that will get outrage clicks. They don’t care about you or your business or the people whose jobs they are jeopardizing with this pointless attack piece.
You open up Twitter again. I see you tweeting and make a note to send over my rate card in, oh, looks like another week or so.
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Here’s something about journalists you should know: they’re almost all miserable.
The reporter at a major newspaper feels like his editors neuter his stories every time. The blogger at a dying blog network isn’t sure where she’ll go when the company is finally sold for parts to a private equity roll-up. The opinion page writer doesn’t understand why her younger colleagues are slagging her columns in public. The guy who just became editor-in-chief of a dying magazine gets a look at historic P&Ls and realizes, adjusted for inflation, he’s making about half of what his predecessors made in the ‘80s. The recent college graduate just found herself laid off before she’s even had a chance to file her first feature. The conservative finance writer, detested by everyone at the office for his bad taste in clothes and decor, pacifies himself by leaking rumors of union organizing to competing publications. A group of writers and editors sitting at a dive bar act elated to hear that the travel writer has sold a book, only to drag her as soon as she steps out for a cigarette. A writer’s manager told her that investing in individual stocks was unethical for a journalist; the manager just bought a brownstone with a down payment provided by her parents. The local paper columnist just got promoted because everyone else was laid off.
Every day, reporters tromp through the worst that humanity has on offer. Crime. Global warming. Insane politicians. Dozens of sniveling PR people kissing their ass. Workers being taken advantage of. People starving, dying.
Even if they’re not a hard news reporter, they’re all lied to almost every day. Sometimes those lies take years to manifest. Every business or tech reporter has dozens of stories about a time they reported a piece, fact-checked it, gave a company or executive or politician the benefit of the doubt, only to realize over time that the whole thing was a ruse—either a purposeful hiding of facts or a situation where their skepticism was founded.
Being a journalist doesn’t feel powerful. It feels, more often than not, like pissing in the wind. You spend weeks or months trying to reveal a truth, correct a wrong, even celebrate something inspiring, only to have it published on the same day that a gunman kills a bunch of kids or the president says something stupid, sucking up all the attention. Or almost worse: your story pops off, people are outraged at the injustice you unveiled, and then…that’s it. A week or two later no on is in jail, the bad guys are still in power. You finally hit the mark, and it just doesn’t seem like it mattered. So you pick up the phone and start digging again.
Now am I suggesting you should pity the reporter that’s sniffing around your business? Maybe give them a little leeway? Fuck no. They’re doing their job, but you should do yours. And that includes maintaining your personal agency in any exchange: knowing when to talk (rarely) and when not to (your default); spending the time to get to know the reporters and their work in your industry, or engaging PR professionals who can do that for you; building a corporate culture that inoculates itself from making the mistakes that the outside world would want to expose in the first place; understanding at least the broad strokes of how the media works, not just things like the difference between “off the record” and “on background,” and not just because it’s a curious little ceremony of a sacerdotal class, but because it’s your job as a leader to understand any channel you choose to engage with that can impact your business.
What you should not do—never ever, not once—is bitch in public about the media. Or call them trolls or say they’re only attacking you for clicks. Or insult a reporter specifically.
It’s not just because it’s a bad look with no clear win scenario. It’s because when you go on the attack, you’re showing fragility in your character. To the whole world—and to your employees. You’re also exposing how powerless you feel. How one bad story that will probably go away in a couple of weeks has turned you into a mewling snit, ready to drop your attention from your business as soon as anyone threatens you even a little bit.
I’m not saying it should feel good. Yes, you’re human. You have feelings. But who cares? You’re not a hero. You’re a business operator. You have chosen to dedicate your life to creating wealth through capitalism, largely for yourself, probably, but maybe for the people who work for you. That’s fine. Not heroic, but fine. Most societies seem to need merchants. So be excellent at that. At creating wealth. Focus on that. Think about how your interactions with the media—even a combative one—can increase your chances to create wealth. And if they can’t? Just don’t interact with the media.
Attacking an outlet? Or a journalist? The depressed person working in a dying industry? Why tangle with them? (There are ways to correct the record without creating a bigger mess—and sometimes it is necessary—but it’s harder and more expensive than most people want to admit. More on that in the future.)
Reputation, which can help create wealth, but is demonstrably not essential to the process, is a byproduct of actions over time. Journalism isn’t, on the whole, a creative force. At its best it’s destructive in a way that, like bankruptcy, creates space for new growth. And it operates by telling, not doing. That is its nature. And while it is imperfect, it is folly to try to take on professional storytellers via the mediums which they control. (That includes, more-or-less, Twitter.) Respond with action—or most commonly, inaction. Get back to work.
And if you really care about the erosion of quality in media? Found a media outlet. Oh, that sounds awful? It is. So leave the reflexive public criticism about industries you barely understand to the experts.
That’s the secret. Accrete power. Build wealth. Be satisfied. You have more opportunities to have all these things than almost any journalist working today. And they know it.
I like knowing that there are founders who will have read this post, that we'll ~never know~ because they a few of 'em will actually follow this sound counsel. the intrigue!