Monday, April 18, 2011

Saying "no" won't make them put down their pens

There is no law saying that just because you don't want somebody to write about you, they won't.

Celebrities and rock stars encounter this every day. Many top business people are speculated upon every day in magazines, newspapers and blogs about what their next move is going to be, surmising what they may be working on or what that lunch they had will lead to.

As a matter of fact, the more elusive you are as a mover and shaker, the bigger the target on your back becomes for the press to dig up whatever they can on you. Children like what they can't have, and it's no different when they grow up. Just think of the countless stories about Steve Jobs where he's not interviewed and often quoted second-hand.

Today brings the case of venture capitalist Fred Wilson, head of New York City-based Union Square Ventures, who is a rabid blogger and Twitterer, and shows up at a handful of prestigious tech conferences. Adweek, in trying to make a name for itself as it relaunches under journalistic troublemaker Michael Wolff, assigned reporter Dylan Byers to write a profile of Wilson.

Byers says right up front in his piece that Wilson "did not want to be interviewed or otherwise cooperate" for the article:

"I don’t want to do a profile," he told me by email. "It’s not my thing." When he found out I was contacting his partners, he seemed livid: "i would like to reiterate that i don’t want any profiles of me. i am not newsworthy. the companies we invest in are. i will not cooperate with this profile and i’ve asked my partners not to cooperate and if you reach out to others and they mention this to me i will ask them not to cooperate either.

"i have nothing to hide," he went on. "i am open and transparent. people know me from my blog, my talks, my activities, and my work. but i do not want to be the subject of a profile. this is not about adweek. i tell the same thing to everyone who asks me to do a profile and most respect my wishes."

Many high-profile people feel the same way as Fred Wilson and also ask their associates to not cooperate with the reporter. The result piece is a mixture of cut and paste from previous interviews, a couple of fresh quotes from present investments Kika and Hashable who must have not received the Wilson warning memo, and some spanking from Byers himself, for not doing enough to promote New York City's tech causes (how's this for a kiss-off: "Getting there may require a leader who is willing to acknowledge his role—to be more huckster than Hamlet.").

While the Adweek piece seems gratuitously nasty following Wilson's desire to stay out of the spotlight, ignoring a reporter while telling your friends not to speak to them is a pretty dreadful strategy with a long history of roadkill. After all, there are countless unauthorized biographies where reporters found willing moving lips and took that information to the bank.

If you're a public figure, it does not matter if you think you are not deserving of a profile. What matters is you've got somebody who is resolute that you are and giving you every chance to be part of it.

If this scenario comes true, you probably have more to lose by saying nothing. You may incur the animosity of the reporter and editor (which was definitely the case here) and they'll go ahead and write their story anyway. And you may not like the things people say about you. Odds are the story will go "off message" and you'll be even angrier because you've given up the one essential ingredient of public relations: control.

If you are determined to be silent, then at least make sure you cooperate with the fact checking -- as a matter of fact, I wouldn't wait for them to call you -- I'd tell them that you insist that all facts regarding you be checked. At least they won't screw up what you know to be true and you can set the record somewhat straight without having a conversation. You'll also get a taste for the story that is about to hit.

The advantages of co-operation? You can establish a friendly relationship with the reporter which may actually engage him as opposed to doing their work with a chip on their shoulder. Do your homework on the reporter -- is this the person you want writing about you or is there somebody else who is more to your liking? If they are excited about the possibility of an interview, they may accommodate your writer request. Take advantage of the fact you are giving them a rare opportunity and exercise some control to sway the odds in your favor.

There is a reason they say keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

A third option: do an e-mail interview. If they want you so badly, perhaps they'll agree to give you a set of questions and you can send back your reply. This gives you the advantage of putting some thought into your replies and not being quoted out of context. You don't even have to answer all the questions, but the ones you feel are worthy.

Of course, there is a fourth viable option. You can move quickly and get friendly parties to write a favorable profile of you before the other one appears. The old cut-em-off-at-the-pass strategy can definitely throw a monkey wrench into the awful story which lurks around the corners.

In the end, there is more to lose by ducking down and hoping nothing bad happens because usually just the opposite takes place. It would be nice to wave a magic wand and make everybody go away. But there's no point in getting one either if you don't know how to use it.

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