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in the red

A Business Journalist on PR: Business is a Human Story

Special guest post by James Flanigan. James Flanigan is a business columnist for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and other publications and has covered national and international business and economics for 46 years. James’ blog and information about his current book can by found at: http://jamesflanigan.com/.

For almost half a century, I’ve experienced public relations from the other side of the table, as a business journalist. So I’m going to tell a few stories, parables if you will, with points about PR in each one.

I’ll begin with a public relations man who did his job well and helped me at the same time. I broke in as a business reporter with the New York Herald Tribune, assigned to cover the oil, chemical, pharmaceutical and tobacco industries. Jack Gillespie was public relations for Socony Mobil, as the company was then called, and he figured it would be good if a reporter covering the industry also understood it. So he set up interviews not with top executives but with working oil men who were on temporary assignment in Mobil’s New York offices. Typically, a crusty fellow, uncomfortable behind a desk, would explain the economics of exploration, say, or how natural gas occurs along with oil and can be recovered.

Gillespie didn’t gild the lily; there was seldom a direct connection to a story about Mobil, but there was an indirect one in that industry stories were at least knowledgeable. In any event, no story comes from a single source and critical comment is always available–in those days it was from upstarts like Occidental Petroleum or ENI, the Italian state oil company, which were shaking up the solid front of the major oil corporations.      A contrast is a story about British Petroleum, which has run into horrendous public relations trouble currently. In the late 1990s, after BP had acquired Amoco and was preparing to buy Arco, I interviewed its chief executive John Browne, later Lord Browne. Browne, to be sure, had intelligent perspective about the industry, but he was already preaching the company’s “beyond petroleum” environmental message.  I wrote a column in the Los Angeles Times after that interview but in subsequent meetings it seemed to a skeptical reporter that image building grew into hype. I didn’t write and declined later offers of interviews because reporting is not stenography and interviews, even with CEOs, do not necessarily a story make. The point is that business is a human story and the most important quality a company can convey in any PR campaign is integrity.

So, I’ll tell one more story about an executive and the late, great business editor James W. Michaels of Forbes Magazine. Each year at Forbes, staff writers had to contact CEOs to compile information for the Jan. 1 industrial rankings. It was tedious work, often to get a boilerplate quote from the CEO. But I called Nathan Cummings, the founder of Consolidated Foods (later Sara Lee Corp.) and he was delightful and informative about the industry and the company. So I asked Michaels why if this guy is so informative, are others dull and evasive? And Jim explained: “Nate owns the company” (which was nonetheless public). “The other people are just hired hands, afraid if they say something in Forbes, they’ll lose their job or be in hot water at the country club.” In PR terms, that tells you not only what you want in a client but what to understand about editors.

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