The A Team’s PR Missteps

TechCrunch’s Arrington

Isn’t it ironic? After years of railing against PR people, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington certainly could have used a good PR person when announcing CrunchFund, his first formal and well-financed foray into funding tech startups.

Absent such counsel, Mr. Arrington now finds himself summarily booted from the tech media enterprise he started and nurtured into the most influential in the land. Furthermore, his already tempestuous reputation has taken some unneeded hits, prompting the conflicted chronicler of (and now investor in) all things digital to try to temper tempers via Twitter.

@arrington slow news day.1 Sep

@arrington I’m going out on my boat to go fishing with my dad for the rest of the afternoon. Please direct all press inquiries to @paulcarr2 Sep

The media maelstrom, which quickly rose to “gate” status, started with word of the establishment of Mr. Arrington’s $20M VC fund and its luminous list of investors including Greylock Partners, Sequoia, Kleiner Perkins, and his own employer AOL. The PR consiglieres (from said employer?) thought it best to announce this sticky piece of news between the carnage of Irene and the respite of a long Labor Day Weekend to minimize the inevitable cries of journalistic conflict-of-interest.

It didn’t work. The intrepid Nich Carlson of BusinessInsider jumped on the story early (first?), with his boss Henry Blodget following shortly thereafter with an even more declarative piece. Something clearly was awry in TechCrunch-HuffPost-AOL land.

AOL’s Armstrong

How could AOL possibly permit Mr. Arrington to continue to exert editorial influence over a news organization that covers the very companies in which he has a financial stake, let alone their competitors?

Didn’t he or AOL chief Tim Armstrong ever hear of R. Foster Wynans? It’s no wonder The Journal‘s digital doyenne Kara Swisher was so vociferous in her criticism.

Mr. Armstrong didn’t help matters with this equivocation (from The New York Times):

“TechCrunch is a different property and they have different standards. We have a traditional understanding of journalism with the exception of TechCrunch, which is different but is transparent about it.”

HuffPost’s Arianna

Not so fast, said Arianna Huffington, Mr. Arrington’s boss, and founder of Huffington Post, which itself has endured a decent share of criticism from journalistic purists. Ms. Huffiungton, who was apparently left in the dark during the deliberations of Mr. Arrington’s fate, told The Times‘s David Carr that Mr. Arrington has been expunged from the editorial decisonmaking at TechCrunch, and will be relegated to the role of occasional unpaid contributor.

No matter. The damage is done. The Atlantic chimed in with this piece titled

“Takeaway From Arrington Startup Saga: AOL Is Looking Sleazy.”

And then The Times‘s dean of the media equation David Carr opined in today’s paper and digital editions:

“…the idea of a news site that covers every aspect of nascent tech companies sharing a brand name and founder with a venture capital firm financing these same companies seems almost comically over the line.”

It’s easy to look back in hindsight and imagine what might have been with a cleaner news announcement. Personally I don’t think it was ever a tenable option for Mr. Arrington to hold onto his editorial perch at TechCrunch, while managing a venture capital fund for digital start-ups — his blog’s bread and butter.

But how could Messrs Arrington and Armstrong not have arrived at the same conclusion? Who was so PR-naive to think that Mr. Arrington might have weathered such an inevitable attack. For, in order to do so, one needs a sizable war chest of reputation capital, something Mr. Arrington did not have, i.e., he has lots of enemies.

Lessons learned: PR is less about one’s Google contacts, Twitter followers and Facebook friends. It’s less about hiding controversy over a holiday weekend.  Its essence lies in one’s instincts and having the prescience to recognize the implications/backlash a potential newsmaking decision can produce. On this front, the “A” team (Arrington, Armstrong, Arianna and AOL) fell short.

With that said, I do wish Mr. Arrington success in his much-ballyhooed new venture. It will certainly be one to watch.     

4 Comments

  1. Peter Himler
    September 7, 2011

    Keith,

    Thanks for chiming in. You’re right. AOL clearly could have handled it better, starting with addressing the news in a clearer more forthroght manner.  The story seemed to dribble out uncontrollably.  Still, as Lou Hofman notes below, Mr. Arrington probably told his bosses that he could go it alone.

    Gerry,

    As much as has changed — especially in the way in which news today permeates the public conscisousness — the best PR people are those with sufficiently honed instincts to recognize when a story will go awry…before it does. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Keith Trivitt
    September 6, 2011

    The irony of this is all very rich. As you note, one of the most vocal PR haters now finds itself in a colossal PR mess, and all by the own doing of its founder, Michael Arrington. The thing is, all of it could have been avoided if (a) AOL had better communications about what it was doing investing in this fund and why it was allowing Arrington to start it while still running TC; and (b) Arrington knew a damn thing about PR.

    Less moaning about bad PR pitches he receives and more work to actually understand the value PR may have for him and his employer some day would have done TC and Arrington a world of good.

    Not that I’m ever happy to send anyone find itself facing the issues that MG Siegler eloquently addressed in his TC post regardin the future of the site and his colleagues’ employment potentially in peril. But AOL and TC could not have played this much worse from a PR perspective. Every step of the way in terms of disclosing the fund, what Arrington’s involvement will be, how AOL, as a publisher, can possibly allow one of its editors to write about a company he technically owns a part of … it all just smacks of bad PR 101. And it all could have been avoided.

  3. Lou Hoffman
    September 5, 2011

    Peter,

    Arrington probably viewed the announcement as inconsequential and not worthy of his time. 

    For all we know, AOL offered professional help ans Mr. A said “thanks but no thanks.”

    What I find ironic is this type of announcement — multiple dimensions of nuance and complexity — is exactly the type of situation that benefits from an embargo.

    While I don’t necessarily think such a move would have turned around the coverage, at least it would have given AOL/TC an opportunity to logically make their case before the feeding fenzy commenced. 

  4. gerard.corbett@gmail.com
    September 5, 2011

    Spot on up through the second to the last paragraph!