On August 4th, New York Times sportswriter Jére Longman – who has been covering the Olympics under an “Inside the Rings” column – wrote an article on American hurdler Lolo Jones that was considered by many readers to be overly harsh and entirely unnecessary. In his piece, Longman characterized Jones as a self-promoter who is more flash than substance, and he appeared to go out of his way to discredit Jones’ athletic credentials; ignoring her long list of athletic achievements, as well as the fact that Jones had qualified for the Olympics in spite of spinal cord surgery a year ago.
Four days following Longman’s hatchet job, after a disappointing fourth-place finish in the 100-meter hurdles, in a tearful interview on the TODAY Show, Jones expressed her frustration, telling Savannah Guthrie: “They should be supporting our U.S. Olympic athletes and instead they just ripped me to shreds. I just thought that that was crazy because I worked six days a week, every day, for four years for a 12-second race and the fact that they just tore me apart, which is heartbreaking.”
The public appears to agree with Lolo regarding Longman’s attack. In a highly unusual column entitled, “Lolo Jones Article is Too Harsh,” the New York Times public editor Art Brisbane acknowledged the volume of reader pushback the Longman piece has created, and noted that, “In this particular case, I think the writer was particularly harsh, even unnecessarily so.”
Putting aside Longman’s opinion or Jones’ reaction, and discounting speculation that Jones’ spokesperson made a serious tactical error in declining to participate in the story, there is a simple but valuable PR lesson in the New York Times coverage of Lolo Jones, which is:
MEDIA RELATIONS 101
It is not a journalist’s job to make you look good. In fact, journalists are always more likely to make you look bad…because it suits their temperaments, pleases their editors and attracts more attention.
We’ll never know Longman’s motivation for trashing Jones. He might have eaten a bad hot dog that day. He might have placed a small wager against Lolo, and was hoping to kill her mojo. Or perhaps his rant was based on moral grounds, exposing the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed virgins who appear nude in sports magazines.
Several years ago I brought a Forbes magazine reporter to meet with the CEO of a major grocery chain. The interview went very well. Or so I thought…until the story was published, which turned out to be a devastating attack on my client. After being summarily fired by the CEO for arranging the public debacle, I called the reporter to ask why she had written such a damaging piece. Her response was simple: “I didn’t like the way he treated his secretary, and he needed to be taught a lesson.”
The CEO and I learned very different lessons that day. He is unlikely to have changed the way he treated his secretary. But I changed the way I treated journalists.