Jack Shafer of Reuters writes about how Amazon.com responds to most business media inquiries with “no comment” and examines the history of companies refusing to talk to the press.
Shafer writes, “As much as journalists would like to believe they’re proxies for the public and the people’s court all wrapped up in one, companies have every right to remain silent to their inquiries. Only the courts and the regulators can demand them to speak, and even then the lawyers act as mediators.
“Ever since the courts had bestowed upon corporations the legal status of ‘person’ in the 1886 case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, the public has had good reason to regard corporations as ‘soulless,’ as historian Roland Marchand put it in his 1998 book Creating the Corporate Soul: The Rise of Public Relations and Corporate Imagery in American Big Business. Considered cold and aloof by the public from the beginning, fixated on profits above all, the large corporations birthed by the industrial revolution did little to counter this image. ‘I owe the public nothing,’ said J.P. Morgan. ‘Silence is golden,’ John D. Rockefeller said to his questioning public, presaging Bezos’s refusal to brindle his actions with explanation and qualification.
“Some early corporations played offense, as Chris Roush reported in his history, Profits and Losses: Business Journalism and Its Role in Society. Hotels, railroads, and steamboat lines started using public relations firms in the 1880s to manage and sometimes ‘thwart’ newspaper articles. As far as corporations were considered, the less the public knew about corporate operations the greater the profit, as one scholar wrote.
“As the muckrakers of the 1890s and early 20th century exposed corporate perfidy, some firms employed public relations firms to temper the journalistic message. Over the 20th century, Marchand wrote, much of corporate America adapted to this kind of criticism by reshaping their identities through public relations gestures and advertisements. The outreach and ads were designed to make the corporations to appear neighborly (General Motors), a member of your family (Westinghouse), patriotic (Ford), or heralds of a brighter future (General Electric).”
Read more here.