Credit: Financial Times photosAs I watched Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s news conference this afternoon, I was reminded of a story that I often use as an anecdote in media training sessions. Since Mr. Bernanke is winding down his time with the Fed, I wanted to revisit the subject that I originally discussed in the article, "Media Training Fundamental: Reporters Are Always Working."

The key point of the upcoming story is that journalists never turn off their nose for news. There is no 'drink in hand' rule that states a journalist who is relaxing isn't also subtly gathering information.

A journalist is never idle. They are always curious. Sniffing out interesting information is what they do and who they are. They don’t punch a clock and turn it off. Ever.

So when an executive encounters a journalist, that executive should similarly always be in spokesperson mode. Not friend mode. Not neighbor mode. Not fellow sports fan mode. Not car enthusiast mode. Not ‘just shopping for groceries’ mode. Spokesperson mode. Company representative mode. Message mode. Always.

In the early months of Mr. Bernanke’s term, he either wasn’t aware of this key tenet of leadership or he was just arrogant, but he messed up considerably.

On Saturday, April 29, 2006, Mr. Bernanke encountered CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo at the White House Correspondents Association annual dinner. In a brief interaction, Bartiromo asked the Fed chairman if the market has misinterpreted his congressional testimony earlier in the week to mean the Fed had only one more rate hike to go before ending the tightening cycle. He said yes and explained that he meant to stress that the Fed might pause and start raising rates again.

Tick tock.

Apparently, it did not occur to Mr. Bernanke that such a comment from him could be of interest to anyone, which of course is nuts.

As Ms. Bartiromo signed on the following Monday for her “Closing Bell afternoon air shift, she led her broadcast with a report on what Mr. Bernanke said to her. And the markets reacted. Stock prices fell in late trading, bond yields rose to a four-year high and the dollar jumped.


The chart at right shows what happened just after Bartiromo’s report.

In the weeks and months that followed, the questions surrounding what happened were resolved and the markets digested the information. Bernanke discussed the matter with the Senate Banking Committee, admitting “a lapse in judgment” when he talked about policy informally.

"In the future, my communications with the public and with the markets will be entirely through regular and formal channels," said Bernanke.

This is a good lesson for any executive or spokesperson – and it applies not only to professional journalists but to so-called “citizen journalists” as well, which means everyone. Anyone on Facebook or Twitter can post about you and be seen in an instant by millions of people – including by professional journalists who constantly search social networks for interesting information. Anyone with a smartphone can shoot video or photos and upload broadcast quality content that can be spread online and through mainstream media.

If you have a conversation, expect that it will be disseminated, dissected, examined and analyzed. Expect that your words and actions will attract attention for better or worse. There was no agreement between Ms. Bartiromo and Mr. Bernanke to keep the conversation private or off-the-record, but even if there was, such an agreement is worthless.

Do you want to stake your career on a reporter honoring your request not to repeat the incredibly juicy information you’ve just related? Knowing that’s exactly what they live for?

If you don’t want it reported, don’t say it. Period.

But that’s not to suggest that you run away if you see a reporter coming. Instead, seize the opportunity to establish a positive relationship, but stick narrowly to those messages and ideas that you do want reported. Be disciplined and focused and positive.

Photo credit: Financial Times photos.