The New York Times has a public-relations problem.
Every day there seem to be articles, and endless Web and television chatter, about The Times: The Times might shut down The Globe! The Times lost $75 million in the first quarter!
There’s only $34 million left in cash! The Times will stop printing in May! The Times should stop printing in May!
At the Times Center last week, at a meeting hosted by CEO Janet Robinson, Metro reporter Glenn Collins stood up and asked why the paper didn’t combat negative press more—or stress the positive—since the paper is battered so routinely in publications like Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, the Post and everywhere else.
Ms. Robinson said that there had been some efforts, and then handed the mic over to Catherine Mathis, The Times’ longtime spokeswoman.
She comforted the staff by saying that she had gone on a “charm offensive” with members of the press, according to a person present. She said she had reached out to Michael Wolff; she said that trying to combat the Post’s negative coverage wasn’t worth the candle; and she said that after much wrangling, she even got a correction from The Observer.
We reached out to the relentlessly over-the-top Times critic Michael Wolff to get an idea of what the charm offensive looked like.
“If it’s a charm offensive, it is the most minor charm offensive, so minor that I didn’t notice it,” said Mr. Wolff.
He said Ms. Mathis introduced herself to him about a year ago after a panel, and that they’ve emailed twice since then. In October, she wrote an email to him about digital revenues at the Times—$330 million, or 10 percent of total revenues—since “you comment often on the Times,” she wrote. Mr. Wolff wrote back, in part, “I know that my views have been on occasion annoying to the Times, but if you’d ever want to chat about any of these issues I’d be all ears.”
He said he hasn’t heard from her.
(And, for the record, the correction in The Observer she’s referring to ran in December 2006. It didn’t have to do with The Times’ financial crisis; it was about her department).
We gave Ms. Mathis a call to talk about public relations.
“I said this at the meeting as well: Our reporters are appearing on more and more broadcast outlets,” she said. “One of the best ways for people to know about The Times and to know our journalism is to know our reporters.”
She said Times reporters have been appearing on, as an example, Charlie Rose, Entertainment Tonight and Today.
We asked her if the department, on the whole, has changed its philosophy about negative press.
“The biggest change, the biggest delta over the past year, has been putting our journalists out there,” she said.
But not all of the response seems to be initiated that way.
After The Atlantic’s Michael Hirschorn wrote a brutal takedown in January—which said, among other things, that the paper could go out of business this month—Ms. Mathis responded with a letter to the editor that was dutifully posted to the journalism blog Romenesko. Likewise, after Vanity Fair published a write-around on Arthur Sulzberger, Times executive editor Bill Keller shot off a letter that he also sent to Romenesko.
And last week, after Gawker published an internl memo from The Wall Street Journal’s managing editor Robert Thomson (“there are two measures of mortality, brain death and the day the NYT subscription ceases—the latter may well be long after the former”), Times spokesperson Diane McNulty fought back by writing a note to Gawker editor Ryan Tate, which also was published on the Web site. “Dear Ryan,” Ms. McNulty wrote. “Your piece on the WSJ editor’s leaked memo was interesting (as were the comments that followed). The memo by WSJ’s Robert Thomson, however, contained some strange analysis.” A lengthy email follows about circulation and The Times’ Pulitzers.
“We have responded to stories over the years,” said Ms. Mathis. “Certainly the business and the industry is in a different place from where it was five years ago.”
Which is really the central point: The Times is no longer in a position to strike the pose of dignified silence. It’s time to get dirty!
“You want to stay above the fray on certain things, but at this point it’s certainly worthwhile to selectively engage and participate in the process,” said Matthew Hiltzik, the founder of Hiltzik Strategies.
“My first thought was, ‘It’s alive! They’re not dead,’” said one PR executive after seeing The Times’ response to the Thomson memo. “I was sure they were dead in that PR department. They’ve got a pulse.”
“It’s clearly a new world,” said Ken Sunshine, PR legend and founder of Sunshine, Sachs & Associates. “A couple years ago, The Times was above everything. They did, on some level, rule the world. But it’s different now and the rules have changed.”
“Sending long letters to the editor to is a very Times way of responding,” he continued. “It’s not enough. You have to do more aggressive, proactive things.”
“If there’s a negative story, go to a competing media outlet, particularly an online outlet, and get in a story that counteracts what they’re being accused of,” he said. “That’s PR 102, not PR 101.”
Whoa! Very dirty.
Then he suggested getting more Times people on TV. Score one for Ms. Mathis.
“Another idea would be really going after some of their detractors,” he said. “Go after the Post! They go after you? You go after them! The Times shouldn’t do a story, that’s a little too on the nose. But there are other ways.”
Imagine Bill Keller calling up Nick Denton to plant a story on Col Allan.
“The Gray Lady needs to adapt to a drastically changed media environment,” said Mr. Sunshine. “They’re doing some of it probably grudgingly, and they need to do more of it and to get a little more street sense.”
Follow John Koblin via RSS.