Massaging the truth

Secret CIO decides to hold his very first press conference - but as Murphy warns, not everything can go according to plan.

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By  Secret CIO Published  April 18, 2009

Secret CIO decides to hold his very first press conference - but as Murphy warns, not everything can go according to plan.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

That's what we all said - although I'd like to make it clear that I said it first. And anyway, I vehemently declare that it couldn't possibly be my fault what happened, since we all agreed on the initial parameters, who would need to be involved and what the expected outcome would be. Everyone should have seen it coming, I say. There's no ‘I' in we, is there?

I'm of course referring to our recent initiative which I (we) came up with after visiting another regional enterprise last month to find out how they were dealing with the credit crisis. There, I discovered (to my horror) that the CIO actually used the press as a means of reassuring outsiders, as opposed to fearing and loathing them as I do as a matter of course.

Naturally, I (we) decided that we should hold some sort of event to announce that we were doing similarly fine (we're not). But as I soon discovered, this way lay fraught with dangers for those initiated in the ways of trying to get free press.

A management guru I met several years ago suggested to me that before speaking to the press, you should be in complete command of the facts so as not to face any surprises from a nosy journalist. Forewarned, I asked my deputy to hold a meeting with our senior department heads to find out exactly what state the company was in. You may ask why I didn't attend - but it would have meant dragging data out of the reticent, which seemed like such an unpleasant task on the face of it.

Four hours later, he staggered out of the meeting like a shellshocked soldier climbing out of a WW2 foxhole after being pounded by mortars for 14 straight hours.

"What's the report?" I asked.

"I've seen car accidents with a better outcome than revealing those figures. Here's my honest advice: Don't let them ask any questions, so you don't have to tell them any lies. "

"Fine, but we have to say something of relevance at the conference," I countered insistently.

"Why don't you just hire a PR agency? That way you don't have to do a thing," he suggested wearily.

I have to admit, I only heard the part about not needing to do anything. But this was seemingly a capital idea - hire some PR luvvies to do all the heavy lifting of coming up with a coherent message, rounding up a load of willing journalists and booking a venue. All while of course ensuring that whoever was roped to go up before them - sorry, I meant represented the company - stayed on message.

Sounds easy in theory - but it proved maddeningly frustrating to put into practice. After two weeks of meeting with the top PR agencies in town and listening to their associated pitches, I had a new understanding of the business of public relations - and of that other well-known maxim: "You get what you pay for."

I certainly found agencies that could do everything I needed - including putting a full-court-press of PR luvvies into action to make sure the most give-away friendly journos would turn up. Unfortunately, the price would have made my CFO commit seppuku. On the other spectrum, there was no end of shady one-man (or woman) operations that came in with loads of promises but little in the way of references to back them up.

In the end, I threw all of them out and decided to do it the old-fashioned way: myself.

How did it turn out? Next month, you'll hear the whole sordid story.

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