There are times when calling out a journalist can serve you or your brand well.
Factual errors come to mind, or unwarranted attacks on one’s character. Those are instances where some back-and-forth with the writer in question is a wise PR move and could help to clear up some points.
Then there are times that it’s probably best to leave it alone—as Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s head of marketing, Henry Gomez, recently learned.
Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway disagreed with something that HPE’s chief executive, Meg Whitman, said during a speech in Davos, Switzerland: “You can always go faster than you think you can.”
Kellaway wrote fairly simply that she disagreed with the remark and used some contextual evidence to support her stance. Kellaway described what happened next when Gomez reached out via email:
Ms. Whitman’s lieutenant told me he was “disappointed” by what I’d written, including a “snide” dig at her predecessor’s purchase of Autonomy. He assured me I’d “mischaracterised” the remarks of his boss, who was the “leader of one of the world’s largest IT companies”, and had a “well-founded perspective” on change management. Then, in case such avowals of her importance failed to carry the day, he wound up with a threat: “FT management should consider the impact of unacceptable biases on its relationships with advertisers.”
If that doesn’t sound like a not-so-veiled threat, I don’t know what does. Give us positive coverage or we’ll pull our advertising. Hasn’t that been the refrain of many scorned brand managers since the dawn of advertising?
From there, Kellaway described her distaste for the modern default to passive aggression, deciding instead for just pure aggression. “He was aggressive to me,” she wrote. “I’m returning the favor.”
Kellaway went point by point in a letter to Gomez, dismantling his attempt to scare or intimidate her into positive coverage. Here’s my personal favorite passage:
And most troubling of all, as head of marketing, you are likely to have an interest in ensuring that the company’s advertising message reaches the right audience. Assuming the decision to advertise in the FT was right in the first place, it would seem crazy—and not in shareholders’ best interests—to change course based on pique.
She then shared her response on Twitter:
My reply to HP, which threatened to cut ads in FT after reading my col. I love the FT for letting me write this. https://t.co/m4oBFxzHFn
— Lucy Kellaway (@lucykellaway) February 7, 2016
It sparked a conversation among communicators, and many sided with Kellaway:
Lucy Kellaway vs HP exec. A response we all wish we’d written. https://t.co/xzbbaPC1uy
— Toby Young (@toadmeister) February 8, 2016
Lucy Kellaway’s column – a gem. To be read by all who have dealt with PR complaints to newsrooms https://t.co/H6Za0VWJuQ
— emily bell (@emilybell) February 7, 2016
@lucykellaway Bravo Ms Kellaway and FT for excellent journalism. Corporations should not bully a free press.
— john tegner (@jtegner) February 7, 2016
One Twitter user threw out a question to ponder:
— Edward Lucas (@edwardlucas) February 8, 2016
HPE’s senior vice president of global communications, Howard Clabo, told Business Insider that he disagreed with the characterization of the exchange, and gave the following statement:
Mr. Gomez very respectfully expressed his concerns about what he felt was a serious mischaracterization of Ms. Whitman’s remarks. Mr. Gomez’s email was sent to Ms. Kellaway and the FT’s business management team. No reporter or news media outlet should be above hearing honest feedback from readers or advertisers.
You can read Kellaway’s full letter here. PR and marketing pros, you might want to refer to it if you’re tempted with threatening to pull your advertising in the wake of negative coverage.