It’s the big sideshow to the sequestration showdown gridlocking Washington—famed journalist Bob Woodward is claiming a White House staffer “threatened” him. And that sideshow has ramifications for the PR industry, says one public relations veteran.
The dustup between Woodward and the White House reportedly began during a conversation in which Woodward told economic aide Gene Sperling about his latest column questioning President Obama’s explanation of the genesis of the sequestration debate.
Apparently, Sperling got a little worked up during the conversation.
Later, Sperling apologized to Woodward in an email and offered this advice, which raised the journalist’s hackles (the emphasis is mine):
“But I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying saying [sic] that Potus asking for revenues is moving the goal post. I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim.”
Politico published the emails
According to Woodward, the email is tantamount to bullying. He told Politico
“I’ve tangled with lots of these people. But suppose there’s a young reporter who’s only had a couple of years—or 10 years’—experience and the White House is sending him an email saying, ‘You’re going to regret this.’ You know, tremble, tremble. I don’t think it’s the way to operate.”
However, since the publication of the entire email exchange, pundits—even some on the right—are saying Woodward is crying wolf.
“It looks to me like Woodward hyped that claim,” Tucker Carlson, founder of conservative website The Daily Caller
, told Fox News on Thursday
After all, Woodward’s response to Sperling’s “threatening” email began:
“You do not ever have to apologize to me. You get wound up because you are making your points and you believe them.”
Carlson also insisted on Fox News that the emails hurt the White House. Meanwhile, PR executive Peter Himler thinks the exchange dings Woodward.
Himler believes Woodward overacted, but he says Sperling chose the wrong word: “regret.”
“Sperling is not a communications person—a communications person would know how to point out factual inaccuracies without using words that can be perceived as incendiary,” explains Himler, who founded Flatiron Communications in New York.
The lesson for PR people is to never offer a knee-jerk reaction to a reporter, says Himler. “Write the email, and if it’s not urgent, go have a cup of coffee or take a walk and then revisit it,” he advises. “And make sure to focus on the facts.”
Sperling didn’t explain in great detail why Woodward would regret his position. Is it because his facts were wrong and writing about the topic would hurt the veteran reporter's reputation—or because the administration plans to deploy a drone to flatten Woodward's house? Be clear when writing to a reporter.
“The only basis on which a PR person can get a correction or a recant is a factual basis,” Himler says. “You can’t get a change based on innuendo—especially in today’s reporting environment in which there is so much opinion.”