The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘No comment’: The death of business reporting

Clorox declined to participate in a story that sought to understand why the company is so admired. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)

Recently I went looking for a well-run company to write about — the sort of corporate profile that used to be the bread and butter of business reporting. I quickly hit upon Clorox, which regularly shows up on the list of best companies to work for and recently walked away with an unusual number of awards for its marketing campaigns. I was also intrigued by the challenge of writing about a company in a “boring” industry like consumer packaged goods (Clorox bleach, S.O.S. scrub pads, Burt’s Bees lip balm, Brita water filters, Kingsford charcoal) rather than tech or finance.

Responding to an email, the associate director of corporate communications called back to get a better idea of what I had in mind. I offered to come out to Oakland, Calif., and spend time talking to some of the top executives and a couple of brand managers, and perhaps visit a manufacturing plant closer to home in Maryland. I explained I didn’t know enough yet to have an “angle” for the story other than trying to understand why the company was so admired. She seemed interested and offered to mail me some material to get started.

A few days later, I got a short email back saying that “we’re going to have to decline to participate” because Clorox’s executives were too busy.

Such is the sorry state of corporate media relations these days. Even the prospect of a positive story can’t crack open the door to the executive suite. Alan Murray, who spent years at the Wall Street Journal as a reporter and editor before taking the reins at Fortune magazine, summed it up this way: “One, they don’t trust us. And, two, they don’t need us.”

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Indeed, what’s happened in the corporate world is not all that different from what has happened in politics and government in the era of Donald Trump, whose administration has set new highs in terms of distrust and hostility toward the press.

Murray and I have been around long enough to remember the days when you dialed the telephone number for corporate headquarters, asked for media relations, and in short order would be talking with a knowledgeable flack (most likely, a former journalist) who was only too happy to provide you with the information you needed or arrange a visit or a set up phone call with an executive. An experienced business reporter might well have already met the company’s chief executive at the regular meetings of the Business Council or during a visit to New York or Washington in which lunch or coffee with the media was routinely part of the schedule. Between reporters and flacks, there was an unwritten set of professional rules about how each went about the job that provided a foundation for trust and cooperation.

Today, the only way reporters can contact many companies is by sending an email not to a person but to an email drop-box or by leaving a message with a “media hotline” that invariably is unmanned 24/7.

You may or may not get a response to these inquiries, and if you do, it is probably an email or phone call from someone relatively young and inexperienced who doesn’t regularly read newspapers or know much about the company but asks robotically about your deadline and the “angle” of your story and wants you to put your questions in writing.

That usually generates carefully scripted responses that are rarely satisfying, with no opportunity for follow-up. Actually having a conversation with someone who knows something — or even the head of media relations, who apparently is too busy in meetings to talk to a reporter — is a rare privilege that comes only after elaborate negotiations.

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“I’d say what you just described is now the norm 60 to 70 percent of the time,” said Joe Nocera, a Bloomberg columnist who has been an editor, reporter and columnist at the New York Times, Fortune and half a dozen other magazines.

“When you call now, it’s battle stations,” reports David Segal, a longtime business writer at the New York Times. “There’s no longer any assumption that we are looking for enlightenment or understanding. The hostility is palpable.”

“You often get the sense their job is to prevent access, to keep you at arm’s length,” agreed Ellen Pollock, a veteran of the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg Businessweek who is now at the Times as business editor.

With the help of Post researcher Magda Jean-Louis, I did an unscientific search of the Times Business section for the past six months looking for instances of companies that declined to comment or were rude enough to never respond to a reporter’s questions. The list includes LVMH, First Data, Career Education, Theranos, Dodge & Cox, Qualcomm, Universal, Warner Bros. and Fox, Tiger Brands, Tesla, Google, Twitter, Toyota, Exxon Mobil and Lyft.

Not every company has reduced media relations to a grudging game of defense. Some industries, such as banking, aerospace and hospitality, are better than others, with tech being the worst, hands down. A number of communications professionals I contacted expressed surprise and dismay when told of my own experiences and those of my colleagues and assured me that they were not reflective of industry best practices.

“This is not what we stand for as a profession,” said Roger Bolton, a veteran of IBM and Aetna who now heads the Arthur W. Page Society, the leading organization for corporate communications professionals. “Media relations is a critical core responsibility, and companies should seek to build trusting relationships with the media.”

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In fact, said Aedhmar Hynes, who leads the global PR firm Text 100 and is chairman of the Page Society’s board, in the age of social media and fake news, the journalism produced at “legitimate news outlets is more important to us than ever because these are trusted, independent sources of information.”

Even Bolton and Hynes, however, acknowledge that in many companies, what is widely referred to as “earned media” now takes a back seat to “owned media”— companies using websites, Internet search engines and social media to build their brand identities and communicate directly with stakeholders.

A survey of corporate communications departments in 2016 by the Corporate Executive Board, the Rosslyn-based management consultancy that is part of Gartner, found that only 17 percent of corporate communications workers’ time was devoted to media relations, with most companies expecting further declines. CEB also reported that only a third of corporate chief communications officers now report to the chief executive. More often than not, they report to the head of marketing, the chief financial officer or, as at Clorox, the general counsel.

“The prevailing attitude is now that everything is about data and social media and identifying the people they can reach by going over the heads of the established media,” one top public relations executive told me.

Just ask Richard Edelman, founder of the world’s biggest public relations agency, who now travels the globe touting his concept of “collaborative journalism” to corporate clients, which turns out to have nothing to do with collaborating with journalists and everything to do with setting up corporate news operations to communicate directly with employees, customers, investors and the public. He cites the results of his company’s 2018 “Trust Barometer,” which found that global consumers now view the news media as the “least trusted institution” because it is elitist, biased and oblivious to the needs of most people.

I was hardly surprised, then, when I found that Edelman’s website provides no information on how reporters might contact the company. I managed to leave a phone message with Edelman’s New York office and sent an email through the website’s “Contact Us” function, but neither generated a response.

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To be fair, we in the media are at least half responsible for the sorry state of corporate press relations. Gone are the days when major newspapers and wire services deployed beat reporters whose entire jobs were to cover one industry or one company, with time to develop expertise, sources and relationships. Business staffs and business coverage have been cut way back, and business magazines are a shell of their former selves — what’s left focuses mainly on technology companies and consumer issues. When the media does come calling, it is too often inexperienced writers who know little about the company or the industry and are spread so thin that they have hours, not days, to report and write the story.

“I have definitely seen the interactions become more transactional and less based on the kinds of relationships that create trust,” said Kelli Parsons, senior vice president and chief communications officer at United Technologies, one company that continues to engage with reporters. “And without trust, there is going to be a belief [on the part of corporate executives] that the risk of engagement is higher than any potential reward.”

Risk, in fact, is the word that comes up repeatedly in conversations with corporate communications veterans.

Top executives “live in an environment where they can’t tolerate a whole lot of risk,” one told me. “A negative story, if it is picked up by social media, can be more damaging than ever. That’s why they have become so nervous about engaging the press.”

“There is this real risk-avoidance mentality that has caused too many companies to effectively abandon media relations,” another said. “What they don’t realize is that by not responding, by not engaging, that is communicating a message that [the media is] not worth their time. And when the time comes that they need the media to explain something important and complex, they will have no credibility. They are kidding themselves if they think they can get that credibility through websites and social media.”

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It’s easy enough to understand how a chief executive, cosseted in his corporate bubbles and often nursing a long-standing grudge about some past article he didn’t like, might think it enough to let reporters listen in on the quarterly conference call with analysts or make the occasional appearance on CNBC to deliver his story directly to viewers. He can also point to companies such as Amazon, or Mars, or Berkshire Hathaway that seem to be doing rather well despite long-standing policies of not responding to media inquiries. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)

On the other hand, a chief executive might look at what happened recently at Facebook, Uber and Wells Fargo and see the damage to a company’s brand — and a chief executive’s reputation — that can result from a bunker mentality. Or he could look at the decline in trust that Americans have in business and wonder if, just maybe, the deliberate strategy of ignoring the press might be partially to blame. Dealing with the press is just one of many risks facing corporate executives. The good ones know how to avoid the bad risks, take advantage of the good ones and manage the ones in between.

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