The perils of the journalist blacklist

8 August 2005

Press officers can do some boneheaded things. But top of the list has to be blacklisting reporters or magazines in response to a story you don't like. Actually, that should be in second place. First place is making it clear to all and sundry that you blacklisted somebody. Google's director of public relations David Krane apparently told CNET that the company would not talk to reporters from that organisation for a year. Krane at least managed a no comment for the New York Times when the paper checked but the damage is now done.

The company might as well have painted a big target on its corporate back. If the company thought the story was wrong, it can complain and get a correction if the error is black and white. It can sue and see what happens. It can publish a statement declaring what it sees the situation to be. To effectively make public the fact that it is prepared to blacklist, the company has declared that none of the above techniques were going to work. So, the only conclusion is that an allegation in the copy was not only true, it was unanswerable. It's not even as if the sanction of the PRs refusing to answer journalist's calls is actually worth that much. Presumably Google believes itself to be too big to be ignored. It would be difficult to ignore the company, but does that mean that a blacklisted organisation is just going to stop trying? I don't think so, especially as the company issuing the blacklist decree has just told everybody where its worries lie.

If you take away the ability to talk to the company's appointed representatives, journalists are going to go elsewhere. There is nothing like finding out you are on a blacklist to spur you on: it's far better than just being ignored because you are not deemed important enough by the PR strategy for that week.

There is always plenty of material tucked away in 10Ks, 10Q and similar financial reports. Sometimes, the juicy stuff turns up in someone else's financial reports: it's strange where you find what were meant to be off-balance sheet transactions. And don't forget the role of staff who may be unhappy with some aspects of a company's business. All that the blacklisting company removes is the chance for good news to be written about it by the offending outlet (unless such an item is genuinely newsworthy).

So, what happens when a juicy nugget turns up and you try to fact check? You ring the PR, who you know won't return the call. There is a potential, if unlikely problem for the journalist in that the company may seek an injunction blocking publication. But it's hard to see a judge being sympathetic to an injunction after being told that a PR did not try to respond to the fact check. And in today's environment, it would be hard to get an injunction before the story appeared online, having given the PR at least a few minutes to respond.

Steve Rubel has pointed out that not returning calls is no longer an option in today's environment anyway. I disagree. Not returning calls is still an option, it's just more dangerous for the PR. However, I was more surprised by this assertion:

I even learned long ago to let calls from certain reporters go to voicemail if necessary. This forces journalists to write such-and-such “didn't return calls” as opposed to “didn't comment.” (It's subtle, but it sounds better.)

I'm afraid not. The former makes the company look either arrogant or incompetent. The latter just means the reader can interpret the claim that lies before the no comment in any way they like. It doesn't necessarily cast the company in a bad light. Now, refusing an interview, that's something else...