Isnâ€™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 â€œgateâ€ 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.
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?
Mr. Armstrong didn’t help matters with this equivocation (from The New York Times):
â€œTechCrunch 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.â€
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.