Meg Whitman Tries to Control Reporters Instead of Her Message

What if you called a press event and everybody came? And then you refused to talk to them. And then you kicked them out of the room.

I swear I was going to profile a media master for this edition, but California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman made such a serious misstep, I had to stop the presses.

The former eBay CEO invited reporters to attend a meeting with railroad officials in what was described as an “open media event”. But when reporters got there, they weren’t allowed to accompany the candidate as she toured the railroad. And when the tour ended, Whitman’s media relations strategy went from curious to curiouser.

Do you want media coverage, or not?

If there’s one feeling reporters hate more than any other, it is the suspicion that they are being manipulated. And they have pretty good noses for such things. As a political candidate, when you invite the press to cover your news event, you must be prepared to face their questions. Failure to do so represents arrogance, naivete, or at the very least, admirable optimism.

Be Prepared When Reporters Push Back

Pity Whitman’s spokeswoman, Sarah Pompei. Whether or not the media shut-out was her idea, she was left to contend with angry journalists after they had been kicked out of the event. In attempting to defend what reporters felt was unjustifiable, she only made matter worse, as news cameras caught the whole exchange. For her part, Whitman later apologized to reporters, which was her best possible course of action. Admitting a mistake and saying you’re sorry can mitigate all sorts of transgressions, even those committed against the media.

Social Media as a Weapon

But an apology won’t fix everything. Notice the source of the Whitman YouTube clip, “TeamPoizner”. California readers will recognize the reference to Steve Poizner, Whitman’s opponent in the governor’s race. Poizner (or his supporters) used this news clip as a stand-alone campaign device, which will last far longer than the governor’s race itself. In the age of social media, news stories, and Media Disasters, live on in infamy.

Mark Bernheimer

Mark Bernheimer is a former CNN correspondent and the founder of MediaWorks Resource Group, an internationally renowned media training and consulting firm.