Just Say No Comment

[UPDATE: Mary Ann McNulty conducted a fascinating interview with IHG SVP Stephen Powell on this topic. See it here if you're a subscriber to The Beat. Thanks for Stephen Boggs for helping arrange...]

InterContinental Hotels Group last week issued a press release and then declined to set up a phone interview for one of our reporters to discuss it with an executive. While other companies have done this, they usually don't also do what IHG's press contacts did next, which is to argue with us about why we're not willing to provide questions by email. An "interview" (duh!) is conducted in real time. Yes, reporters may sometimes ask questions by email, but for us that's normally just a matter of fact checking. It's not an interview. All of this makes me wonder what IHG is hiding after a press release (which is not posted to its Web site) indicated that the company is pushing "preferred business accounts" in the Asia-Pacific region to adopt dynamic pricing, which it said provides an "alternative" to annually negotiated rates.
IHG PR representative Sheo Shanker Rai told our reporter that the company "would really need the questions before we proceed." Shanker didn't say why. Later, Shanker told our reporter, "I understand why you can't" provide questions in advance, but added "I have been working in the PR/media line for close to ten years and most reporters do give the questions." 

In a follow-up converstaion, IHG spokesman Stephen Boggs told me, "There's nothing sinister here. We're not trying to get the damned answers in advance so we can formulate PR responses to you." He was probably a bit hot because I taunted him with this: "They do have phones in Singapore." I admit, it was rude. But who is this guy and his colleague to respond to our policy against email-based "interviews" with this?: "We find that very laughable. Nearly every reporter we deal with is willing to give us questions in advance just for this purpose. I have an interview this afternoon with an executive and a reporter up in Pennsylvania, and I've had their questions for two weeks." I'm sorry but that's just not journalism.

"I don't see what the issue is here," he continued. "It's a very easy way of doing an interview for you." Indeed it is, but it does not serve the reader, which is why we don't do it. I don't care what other "reporters" do. [Some also take discounts for their honeymoons, accept awards from organizations they cover and favor advertisers in coverage ... none of which is what the reader wants, for obvious reasons.]

Despite his argument with our no-email-interviews guideline, Boggs went on to claim that "the reason we ask for the questions in advance is because of a timing and convenience issue, given that the executive who would need to respond is in Singapore, so it would be difficult as far as time zones and all that stuff. We have to work with their schedules, too. You just don't call and get an exec on the phone at the snap of a finger." Hence my snarky remark about phones over there. C'mon, all the executives we interview have busy schedules!

We said we were willing to work with the executive's schedule and speak to him at whatever time was convenient. But no, the last word was, "We would like to do the interview; however, due to scheduling with our executives in Singapore, we are requesting to do the interview via email to respond to your inquiry."

We all know that at least one reason why PR people want the questions in advance or in an email is so they can work with the executive on canned answers that they can put the executive's name on. I'm not saying that's what's happening here, but it's a lot more plausible than they don't have phones in Singapore. Then Boggs said, "If your purpose is solely to catch them off guard with a Carl Bernstein kind of method, then there's no reason to do the interview." I told him I had no idea what he meant by that--though, as an aside, "All The President's Men" was a big inspiration to me as a kid. I pointed out that "the purpose is not to catch them off guard; it's to get to the truth. Usually the first reaction is closer to the truth than what the PR guy typed out in an email and said was said by the executive."

"What kind of truth are you looking for?" Boggs asked. "We're talking about dynamic pricing for corporate accounts." That sounded to me like he was trying to minimize the importance of the information. Look, I know we're not saving lives here, but if hotels were to drop the RFP process in favor of dynamic pricing, that could have implications for the jobs and livelihoods of the people who read our publications. No one covering corporate travel is looking for a Pulitzer Prize; we're just doing our jobs.