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Stories from the PR Front: When a CNBC CEO Request Had Me Shaking My Head, and Preparing My Resume

[fa icon="calendar'] Jan 7, 2019 9:57:54 AM / by Jim Boyle

1990's CNBC Logo

All of us who have worked for some length of service in public relations have our “stories.”  They might be the time we thought nobody would care about a press release, but the story exceeded our low expectations and led a local newscast.  Or conversely, the client pitch we hoped might make The New York Times and ended up only as a link on PR Newswire.

Some of these stories we must keep to ourselves, for they could compromise our relationships with our clients or might show us to be untrustworthy with our peers, especially if we are working in-house at a company or non-profit.  Others we tell only to a relatively small group of knowing family and friends, the kind who can keep a secret and appreciate the circumstances.

And it’s those stories – ones that I have previously only told to family members and close friends – that I plan to trot out occasionally on this blog.  No official statute of limitations has passed, but I figure if something worth sharing now took place in the century beginning with the number “19,” then that’s probably enough time has passed for me to tell the tale.

The story that I am about to share happened nearly 30 years ago, sometime in 1990.  I was the director of corporate communications for CNBC, NBC’s first venture into cable television, a position I had established at the time of the channel’s launch in April 1989.  Everybody knows about CNBC today, but back in those days the channel got off to a somewhat stumbling start.

By the time 1990 arrived, it became apparent that some heads were going to roll at CNBC, and that some new talent would be sourced to drive better ratings.  One of the first people to exit was CNBC president Michael Eskridge, a well-respected and long-time NBC executive who had handled the development and launch of the channel following what was widely seen as an outstanding job running NBC coverage of the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.

I reported directly to Michael, so when he departed rather suddenly, I began to wonder how long I was going to be staying in my own job as Director of Communications.  But I had an unofficial dotted line to NBC Corporate Communications in New York City (even though CNBC was in Fort Lee, New Jersey), and I was assured by senior team members there that a “great guy” would be replacing Michael and that “you’ll love working with him.”

It didn’t take very long to learn that guy’s identity and, for purposes of this blog, I’ll just say that it was like being in a prequel to the TV show 30 Rock, which didn’t debut until many years later.  I make that reference because the new CNBC president in 1990 was a friend of the then-NBC CEO while both were at Holy Cross, later ran GE’s refrigerated rail car division, and was CFO for NBC Sports before taking the CNBC gig.

Granted, at this point I had only been in the TV business for 5-and-a-half years myself, but I did know some of the many basics better than this truly nice and friendly guy who was to be my new boss.  Despite a streak of cynical humor, I am also a fairly deferential person and so I treated my new boss with great respect, well at least until the fateful day of the Dan Dorfman announcement.

Those of you who are of a certain age will remember that Dorfman was an influential “Money” columnist in the early years of USA Today, and by 1990 he had parlayed that gig into regular appearances on CNN, specifically the Lou Dobbs Show, which back then had a following of sane people.

CNBC, however, made Dorfman an offer he couldn’t refuse, and he decided to jump ship and become one of CNBC’s key commentators, probably the most well-known one to be hired at that point and, of course, well before Jim Cramer grabbed his place on the CNBC Wall of Fame.

Of course, I was excited at the prospect of Dan Dorfman’s hiring as I saw it as a very positive story for our network.  I collaborated with him and CNBC executives on the planned messaging and drafted a press release, which received swift approval to be issued on a day certain, a Tuesday if I recall, as that was my go-to release recommendation day.

Since this was 1990, there were two ways for me to distribute my CNBC press releases.  The first, and by far the most effective, was through the so-called “NBC bundle” that went out with a push of a button from Monday – Thursday at 12 Noon ET and included releases from every division of NBC – Entertainment, News, Daytime Programming, Sports and, beginning in 1989, CNBC.  The other was by fax, to a list that I been building throughout my time at the network.  I also called out lots of releases, back when you could reach reporters land line to land line.

So, to recap, the release was set to go at Noon on that day, with me planning to make certain key calls that morning to folks such as John “Jack” Carmody of The Washington Post, Brian Donlon of USA Today and others.

Since it was a day of anticipation, several of us on the business side of the network were gathered in the CEO’s office that morning, looking forward to the news announcement and, we hoped, the increased distribution and ratings that Dorfman’s hiring would bring to the network.

The CEO specifically asked me: “Jim, when is the release going out?”  I told him “Noon” and reminded him about the distribution benefits provided by the “NBC bundle” going to hundreds of consumer and trade outlets.

That’s when a TV-mogul-in-the-making look that I had never see before crossed this CEO’s face: “I want this announced on our CNBC air today; this hiring is a big deal!”

OK, I thought, I had crossed the “church-state line” before, and I knew that my job now was to walk across to the newsroom and “secure” coverage of the Dan Dorfman announcement on CNBC.  In doing so, I was already aware that the newsroom wasn’t exactly as hyped about Dorfman’s hiring as the business side of the network.  That was for two reasons: 1) word was leaking internally about how Dorfman was to be paid, which was a lot more than the average on-air personality; and 2) it was a bit tacky and self-serving to treat this as “news.”  (Dorfman was not arriving for over a week, so there would be plenty of time for on-air promotion.) 

Nevertheless, CNBC deputy news editor Peter Sturtevant was a trooper, so he empathized with my position and told me that I could inform the CNBC CEO that there would be two “readers” done announcing Dorfman’s hiring, one shortly after 10 AM and the other shortly after 2 PM.

Figuring I had scored a victory, I triumphantly walked back to the CEO’s office and told him of Peter’s plans, thinking that he would be satisfied.  And, to a degree he was satisfied, but then his own impresario dreams got the better of him, and a rather surreal conversation followed.

“So, the press release is going out at Noon, but it’s going to be announced on our air for the first time at 10 AM,” he said, seeming to ponder the import of his statement.  “Yes,” I said.  I almost added – jokingly of course but with a ring of truth – “don’t worry if it breaks on our air because nobody in the media watches our channel anyway.”  (This was very true at the time.)

I didn’t say that, but still I had called this situation wrong.  Instead, the CEO stood up, walked around his oversized fairly empty desk, sat on the edge its front left corner, and hovered over me, suggesting: “Why don’t we do a separate press release at 10:15 AM, saying that CNBC has just learned exclusively that Dan Dorfman is joining the network?”

Now while I realized then and now that “exclusives” are the coin of the realm for news organizations, it was my opinion that that the CEO’s suggestion was laughable, and I couldn’t help myself from chuckling out loud.  The CEO became angry at my reaction and blurted: “Dammit, Boyle, we need to be aggressive about this announcement!”

I was now on the defensive, never a good place to be, especially in a CEO’s office.  “I will be aggressive, sir, but we would look foolish announcing that we had ‘learned something exclusively’ within the walls of our own network, especially for what is essentially a personnel announcement,” I said.

Mixing my network metaphors, I added: “It would be like Mike Wallace opening 60 Minutes by announcing: ‘Tonight we have learned exclusively that Dan Rather has resigned as anchor of the CBS Evening News.’  We would look foolish and it would hurt our credibility with the reporters who cover us.”

While the CEO didn’t literally throw me out of his office, it was clear he wanted me elsewhere as he beat a retreat behind the massive desk and picked up the push-button NBC phone with a cord that might as well have stretched to the George Washington Bridge.

“I am going to call Betty Hudson about this,” he bellowed, referring to the then-head of NBC Corporate Communications, someone he had no doubt worked with extensively during his stint at 30 Rock, when it was just a building and not the name of an Emmy-winning TV show.

I have no idea what Betty told him, but I am sure that she was very diplomatic, just as she was with me when I spoke to her myself a few minutes later.  The collective decision was to “not release the exclusive,” a good outcome by itself but not great for my relationship with the CEO, who then seemed to question most of my recommendations in the weeks and months ahead.

Before too much time passed, I moved on in my PR career, with an interim stop at COMSAT Video Services before landing at Discovery Communications, Inc., where I had a 10-year run and yes, a few more stories on the PR front, ones that I will share in this blog in the months ahead.

 

 

 

 

Jim Boyle

Written by Jim Boyle