Reporter Set Up RIM CEO to FAIL

It happens all the time. A C-Level Executive agrees to do an interview about a specific subject. However, part way through, very often at the end of the interview after the reporter has everything he or she needs for the original story (and also when the executive’s guard is down) the reporter pops a controversial question.

I address this very common tactic at length in my book, When the Headline Is YOU, and also during media training sessions because this strategy often takes the subject by surprise, and they inevitably say or do something they regret.

It happened on April 13th to Blackberry RIM CEO Mike Lazaridis during a BBC interview. The interview went viral, and not in a good way. It’s now more like a virus that has weakened RIM’s position in the middle of a new product launch.

Here’s how it rolled out; Technology reporter for the BBC, Rory Cellan-Jones asked Lazaridis about the launch of the new RIM Playbook tablet. They chatted about it for a while, and then the reporter asked the obviously surprised CEO if RIM was still having problems with security issues regarding Blackberry phones in the Middle East and Asia.

The reporter very tentatively presented the question in a way that to the inexperienced seemed respectful, but it had a well-constructed undertone designed to catch the CEO off guard and rattle him. The reporter implied there was a security problem with the product, which btw there is not, and the CEO took offense to what he characterized as a political issue that was being addressed at a high level between governments. He referred to it as “a national security issue” and implied it was not something to be addressed lightly during an interview that was supposed to be about promoting the launch of a new product. The CEO felt like he was caught in a bait and switch, and he expressed his feelings very clearly on camera. Unfortunately, he did it in a way that made it look like he was being deceptive, or maybe more accurately, misleading.

One would think a CEO with the intellect and experience of Lazaridis would be fully prepared, and deal with the question in a manner that would protect not only his product, but more importantly the market share of his very successful company. Unfortunately, he immediately became frustrated and instead decided to argue with and question the reporter’s integrity. After a sentence or two he eventually ordered the reporter to shut off the camera, which, according to the BBC video, they did so immediately, or at least that is the way it looked in the current version online. Complying with the CEO after the horse was out of the barn made it appear like the reporter took the high road and the CEO was defensive and deceptive.

Interestingly, a number of other news companies, mainstream and new media, exaggerated how upset the CEO was, and even used phrases like, “lost control, watching RIM CEO freak out, CEO Cries No Fair, etc.” which was not at all how Lazaridis reacted. To his credit he remained relatively calm, but unfortunately he did not address the reporter in a way that inspired confidence in his leadership or product. Without doubt he is a brilliant engineer, but his communication skills are sorely lacking. In the interest of full disclosure, I use a Blackberry and an iPAD.

Too many executives don’t understand that all is fair when speaking with a reporter, and that it is all on record, including your response to a question you object to being asked.

Interestingly, because of the way Lazaridis handled his response, he elevated the story into an international incident that really should have been put to rest as quickly as it was posed. The CEO inadvertently gave legs to an issue that was a non-issue. A few days later the internet was full of opposing views regarding the reporter’s integrity and the CEO’s response. Some argued it was a fair question, while others felt the CEO was set up and failed miserably.

The truth is, it was a fair question based on how the news industry operates. It is their industry and their rules, and if a CEO or anyone doesn’t want to play by news industry rules you take a huge risk of suffering serious consequences.

True, you can refuse to speak with media, but if you do you will not be able to tell your side of the story, plus, in some cases avoiding media often makes you look guilty. A better option is to learn the rules and have a deeper appreciation of how reporters think.

Did the CEO of RIM deserve to be tricked into undermining his company? Of course not, but with a little forethought and planning there is no doubt he could have easily addressed the issue and still promoted his product effectively.

Unfortunately, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

I don’t buy for a moment when mainstream news media or anyone else defends Lazaridis by saying he’s just an engineer and not a sales pro, so he can be forgiven. This isn’t about sales. It’s about being prepared and communicating your message clearly. If anything, it’s about public relations and promotion. News media’s traditional role is not to help sell products. In fact they go to great lengths to convince us of the exact opposite and that they are unbiased.

During the fiasco you can hear what appears to be a PR person in the background of the interview coaching the CEO live on camera. She said, “Sorry Rory, that’s not why we’re here today.” As she spoke, Lazaridis, the CEO, looked off camera to her for direction and jumped in to say “That’s just not fair Rory.” It was hard to hear her clearly, but it sounded like she then interjected “We’re almost out of time. Is there another question you might want to ask?” or something of that nature. Lazaridis then quickly halted the interview.

After the interview ran on BBC, RIM’s share price on the Toronto Stock Exchange, according to Google Finance live tracking, dropped from a high on Wednesday of 52.92 to a low on the 14th of 50.76. It leveled out the next day and bounced around a bit for the next five days eventually hitting another low and closing at 50.85 on the 19th. Granted, it’s not a drastic drop, but did the failed interview have anything to do with it? There are many factors affecting share prices, so it’s hard to say over such a short period, but history tells us a company spokesperson can have a dramatic effect on the confidence shareholders have in a company.

Here’s the interview on the BBC site. They promise to run a longer version later in April.

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