Company CEOs discuss relationship with the media
Top executives of two large publicly traded companies said that their relationships with the business press is, for the most part, fair and objective, but they feel that they have been subject to cheap shots as well.
“They’re working hard at it, and they’re factual,” said CEO Steve Zelnak of Martin Marietta Materials. “When I have a problem is when it’s not factual.” He said that there is an editor of a business publication, which he did not name, with whom he will not talk to because of a story that he said was factually correct.
Added Bill Johnson, chief operating officer of Progress Energy: “Most of our dealings with the press are good. We do speak different languages. But the motives are good, and the intentions are good.”
Johnson and Zelnak were part of a panel that included Steve Jones, dean of the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC-Chapel Hill, and himself the former CEO of a bank, at “The State — and Future — of Business Journalism” held Thursday in North Carolina.
When asked what he would change about business journalism, Johnson argued for greater understanding of the business world. “Our business is kind of arcane, and it’s a little hard to grasp,” said Johnson. “Financial journalism has gotten a lot harder. I don’t know how you get better prepared.”
Johnson showed a tape of a broadcast TV interview with a station in Florida that he felt was a “cheap shot” in which his salary was discussed during the opening of a new power plant. He also took objection to a newspaper article that noted he was out at a dinner the same day the company announced an early retirement program. The paper described it as a celebration dinner for layoffs.
Alecia Swasy, a former business editor of The St. Petersburg Times and now an assistant managing editor at Dow Jones Newswires, told Johnson that her relationships with the Progress Energy PR people improved over time, but she asked for companies to work more openly with the busines section and asked Johnson why so many important announcements were made on late Friday afternoons.
Replied Johnson: “When we do things on Friday at 4:30 p.m., it’s a conspiracy of dunces.”
Zelnak said that when media calls come into his company, he makes a point to try to return those calls. He said his biggest problems with coverage are stories that confuse revenue and net income and stories where numbers in the billions and millions are wrong because the reporter isn’t reading the financial statement correctly.
University of Missouri professor Marty Steffens suggested to the CEOs that they work not only with the beat reporters but also get to know editors and others at the paper.
Zelnak said he decides whether to respond to a media inquiry nearly 1oo percent “other than those individuals who are factually challenged. When I get a call, I return it promptly.” He said he has shared his unlisted phone number with reporters, much to the chagrin of his wife.
Johnson said he actually liked to deal with the media. “I look forward to returning most of those calls,” he said, and added that the company will return every call, although it may not be helpful all of the time.
However, Johnson said that Regulation Fair Disclosure has made it harder to work with journalists, and that some journalists think that companies are trying to hide information when it’s simply that they can’t speak because of Reg FD.