Gossip at Your Own Risk

Another week, and another fun journalism scandal. This one, however, contains an interesting public relations element.

Late last week, news broke that Jared Paul Stern, a freelancer for the New York Post’s infamous Page Six gossip column, has been accused of trying to extort money from billionaire Ron Burkle. According to press reports, Stern promised Burkle “protection” from scurrilous gossip items in exchange for cold, hard cash.

Stern has gone on the offensive and countered the charges by saying that he was set up, and that transcripts of a taped conversation between him and Burkle, which numerous media outlets have somehow gotten their hands on, were edited in such a way as to make him appear guilty of shaking down Burkle, a powerful financier and close friend of President Bill Clinton. Stern has said that he wasn’t trying to extort money from Burkle; instead, he was trying to get the billionaire to invest in a clothing business he runs on the side and to hire him as an image consultant.

We’ll let the authorities decide whether Stern has committed a crime, though I have no problem stating that Stern committed an amazing breach of ethics.

For starters, journalists don’t go into business with people or companies that they write about. At least real journalists don’t, but I guess no one ever accused gossip columnists of being journalists. More to the point, anyone who puts an active journalist on the payroll, or contracts a journalist for services, is setting himself up for a fall.

I, of course, have no problem with a PR firm hiring retired journalists, or journalists who don’t interact with the firm’s clients, but hiring a journalist (or investing in his company) in exchange for favorable coverage, or a lack of negative coverage, is an ethical no-no, and chances are the story will eventually come to light.

Illustrating this theory: I turned down consulting job offers from two telecom firms a few years back because I knew that if I took their money, I could not write about the entire industry. If I was on the payroll of a large telecom firm, would you taken anything I wrote about the industry seriously? More important, was I willing to sacrifice my career for some quick money? Of course not.

On the flipside, I did take a few consulting gigs from companies outside of my sphere of coverage. One was a Wall Street firm and one was a retailer. A few years after my consulting jobs ended, I was asked by my editors to write some stories about these companies. I refused, citing my prior relationships with them. On one hand, I could have gone easy on my former clients as a favor for past work. On the other hand, I could have broken my non-disclosure agreements and written some seriously negative pieces. Either way, I wasn’t going to be able to write an unbiased piece.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Burkle-Stern scandal is that Burkle was upset by a couple of gossip items that had nothing to do with his businesses. While I don’t know what it’s like to have my personal life written about, I don’t quite understand why a billionaire would be so concerned about what some freelance writer has to say about his divorce. I guess that’s not my business, and maybe I would think differently if gossip columnists were calling up and asking about who I vacationed with. Nonetheless, I want to give readers some advice on dealing with gossip columnists.

Unless you’re handling celebrities, don’t even bother dealing with gossip columnists. There is virtually no upside to the experience because they’ll print whatever they want, and they will twist whatever you say in the process. These guys don’t operate under any real rules, and they are not there to be your friend. Restaurants, clubs and art galleries are the most likely businesses to end up in gossip columns, and there can be positive implications. The problem, however, comes when famous patrons get fed up with restaurant owners or club promoters reporting their every move to the press.

Case in point: my actual friend Tom (not his real name), a manager of a hot New York night club.

One of Tom’s employees was embroiled in a scandal that crossed oceans and destroyed relationships. Gossip columnists and tabloid reporters were staking out the club looking for said employee. Tom didn’t know whether he should pander to the journalists, while protecting his employee, or whether he should tell the mob to buzz off.

At first, Tom did the former, which resulted in a number of items mentioning his club. This seemed like a good idea until gossip columnists started driving off patrons with nagging questions and the club’s whole “scene” turned from cool to lame due to overexposure. The furor eventually died down, but not before Tom had to get his lawyers involved to get the gossip columnists to stop writing “lies” about his club.

Gossip columnists are the journalistic equivalents of leeches, which is saying a lot. They want everything for free, and they promise much in return, granting few actual favors. I know of consumer electronics companies that have given gossip columnists free items hoping for a cool press hit, and all they got in return was snubbed in favor of some B-list celebrity. Charity event organizers I know have fed juicy items to gossip columnists in an effort to promote their charity, but often the charity never got mentioned. What was the point then?

Most PR people won’t have to deal with the Page Sixes of the world, but there are plenty of gossip websites covering everything from the automobile industry to local real estate scenes. And even if you deal with clients whom you could never imagine being the subject of gossip, think again.

Late last year, Robert McCormick, the chief executive officer of boring telecom firm Savvis, made the news because of an unpaid, $241,000 credit card bill for a trip to a New York strip club. The incident was a gossip column favorite in print and online. The incident also cost McCormick his job, and it brought his company enough bad ink to make any gossip columnist happy.

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/.