There were five of us: three reporters, a Wall Street equity analyst, and me. We sat in the conference room chatting and drinking coffee. Mostly, we waited. A company had invited us to a local hotel for a public relations meet-and-greet with top management at 10:00 AM. We were arrived on time and were greeted by a public relations rep who works for a large shop. She cheerfully informed us that the company executives would be in shortly. In the meantime, we should enjoy the danishes.
Time seemed to pass slowly. By 10:15, I was on my second cup of coffee. (No small feat considering I probably drink about 20 cups of joe a year.) When 10:30 rolled around, the PR person popped into the room and cheerfully–she was cheerful all day–apologized for the delay. She said the executives would be there momentarily.
“Did they get stuck in traffic?” one of the reporters asked.
“No, no, no,” the PR rep replied. “They’re here. Something came up and they’re just delayed.”
The PR rep was on her way out the door while the word “delayed” still hung in the air.
“This is a joke,” the Wall Street analyst said to no one in particular. Heads buried in BlackBerries nodded in agreement.
At around 10:45, a half-dozen people entered the room: the CEO and CFO, flanked by the head of corporate communications, the head of investor relations, the cheerful PR rep, and a minion of some sort. There was a pause as we expected a round of introductions and handshakes. Instead, the cheerful public relations rep moved to the front of the room and announced the executives.
The CEO spoke first, barely acknowledging our existence. He ran through a PowerPoint presentation and seemed to have memorized several talking points, none of which were very interesting. Some of the language seemed to have come straight from the company’s web site.
Next up was the CFO, who ran through the company’s financials. This was an excruciating exercise because the company had announced its most recent quarterly financial results less than two weeks earlier; everyone in the room was familiar with the information.
To close out the scripted portion of the day, the head of investor relations gave us a canned pitch better aimed at potential investors, not people charged with writing about and analyzing a company.
The Q&A got off to a rocky start and never found smooth ground. The C-level executives seemed defensive and annoyed that we didn’t toss softball questions. I asked a question about profit margins, a subject that either the CEO or CFO should have answered. The investor relations rep spoke up instead. A reporter asked about marketing strategy and received a response from the corporate communications rep. After about ten questions, the cheerful public relations rep chirped, “We’ll take one more question.”
With the Q&A over, the C-level executives quickly made the rounds. They shook our hands, thanked us for coming, and then left the room. It happened so fast that the five attendees, me included, were caught off-guard.
“Who is ready for lunch?” the PR rep asked.
The Wall Street analyst was smart. He got the heck out of Dodge, muttering an apology about having to get back to work. Two reporters then demurred and bailed by the time we left the building. That left me, one reporter, and the cheerful public relations rep. I had a meeting a few blocks away scheduled for 90 minutes later, so I went along for my free lunch. The food was good, but the conversation was better.
“So, what the hell was that all about?” the reporter asked the cheerful public relations rep. At this point, it became clear that the reporter and the flack had an existing relationship.
“I’m really sorry,” the PR person said. “That was just horrible. They asked me to set that up and then they wanted to cancel at the last minute. I had to plead with them to go through with the meeting.”
A story began to emerge: The company was tired of getting hammered in the media by people it perceived to be critics, the Wall Street analyst being tops on its list. The reporters were invited because they cover the company as part of their beat. I was invited because I’ve spoken to the media about the company a number of times, and in the words of the cheerful PR rep, management believes that I am “unbiased.”
On the morning of the meeting, the analyst had negatively mentioned the company in a piece of research, and said he would pose addition questions after the meeting. (This research generally goes out to brokerage clients and institutional investors such as hedge fund managers.) The cheerful public relations rep was then stuck with clients with cold feet. She explained to them how poorly canceling the meeting would reflect on the company, but it was actually the investor relations person who forced the meeting to go on, arguing that a cancelation could make it appear that something was amiss.
The cheerful public relations rep said that this behavior was “par for the course” for this particular client. In fact, she said that her firm’s contract with the company was expiring in less than a month and the firm had decided that the client wasn’t worth the trouble.
Summing up the meeting for my clients in a research note that day, I wrote: “[The executives] did not exhibit the type of judgment I would expect from people running a company of this size and visibility. The meeting was awkward, unnecessary, and fruitless. It was the kind of event I loved when I was a journalist because it would have made a good story. In my current role, it just makes a weird story.”
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.