Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A timeout from hockey to talk about honesty

In the 10-plus months since the Los Angeles Times requested that I never return from a ski vacation, I’ve mostly refrained from saying anything public about the newspaper.

I’ve done this mostly because I haven’t had much to say, given that I’ve spent a lot more time fussing over my right skate than I have the future of the L.A. Times.

Besides, I obviously have an axe to grind and I’ve worked for elected officials, agencies and other private entities that are covered by the Times. I’m sure none of them really need me antagonizing the paper.

All that said, I actually found myself laughing out loud this morning when I read Times editor Russ Stanton’s quote at the paper’s Readers Representative website about the debut of a news section today. I'm writing about it here because I think it offers some useful lessons to anyone who has to make public comments.

Stanton's quote: 
“The changes to the paper give us the opportunity to expand and further showcase the terrific enterprise reporting of this newsroom, as well as produce the first new news section in many, many years.”
It’s a technically true statement. As far as I can recall, it is the first ‘new’ news section in quite some time.

But as most people know, it’s not an accurate statement. Stanton neglects to mention that the new section in many ways replaces the California section that he, in part, decided to kill in 2009.

If a politician were ever to say something similar (for example, revive an agency that they previously terminated), I bet that the Times would likely report that. Instead, the paper put a misleading statement on the blog belonging to the readers representative – the very person who is supposed to be the Times’ accuracy watchdog.

I know. In the cosmic scheme of things, it matters not – certainly not as much as the Kings’ current winning streak or the awful Jack Johnson trade rumors. So why am I writing about this? Because I think it says something about the way that large organizations SHOULD NOT communicate with the public.

In particular, I offer these two lessons to those who have to explain controversial decisions: 1) don’t lie or fudge the truth, and; 2) saying nothing is probably preferable to lying.

In this case, the newspaper chose to say something stupid instead of what it could have done: offered a perfectly reasonable explanation for the new section. Stanton easily could have said:
“For business reasons and to help keep the Times financially viable, we had to shift some deadlines to earlier in the day. In order to ensure that all the articles we wanted to publish made it into the paper, we had to create a new section to accommodate stories reported and edited later in the day or in the evening."
That’s it. Such a statement would likely not have mollified all readers, but it would have been truthful and accurate and struck most readers as an honest explanation for what probably was a tough decision. 

The sad thing is I see the same mistake repeated time and again by public and private organizations. There’s always a persuasive person somewhere who seems to believe the spin will work or that the public won’t pick up on the other side of the story or that the public can't handle the truth.

Maybe in the old days such strategies worked. Not anymore. Not in the era of the internet and the smart phone and Facebook and Twitter and so on. Either tell the truth or say nothing until you’re asked – and then tell the truth. And never, ever say something that speeds up the erosion of your own credibility.

Sermon over. I’ll soon return to vastly more important topics such as male hockey garter belts and an update on the pinky finger that I injured courageously stopping a slapshot taken by an 11 year old.

P.S. If you’re a Times staffer and wish to contact me to inform me of your current state of unhappiness, please don’t. I am not a psychiatrist. The best advice I can provide is to purchase a pair of ice skates and immediately enter a running race you have no business participating in.

--Steve Hymon

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, Steve! Honest! ;-)

    Your better half put me onto your blog and I'm pleased to become a regular subscriber. I've always enjoyed your writing and your sense of humor and I look forward to enjoying it on a more regular basis.

    Good luck with the marathon training. I did my second marathon last spring and plan to do my third this May. Running!?!? Are you nuts?!?!? This will be the third marathon I've photographed. Man, that's exhausting!