Gini Dietrich

PR Pro Charged with Barricading Reporter in Room

By: Gini Dietrich | June 6, 2012 | 

I was reading my friends over at PR Daily yesterday and what did I find, but a story about a PR guy (I can’t even call him a professional) who locked a reporter in a room so he was unable to ask his CEO any questions.

Yes, you read that correctly. He locked the reporter in a room.

But it’s not just any CEO. It’s the CEO of Honeywell, a Fortune 100 company. A publicly traded company. A seemingly very powerful company. A company so powerful, in fact, it’s CEO doesn’t have to answer any tough questions.

So What Happened?

Here’s the story.

Mike Elk, a reporter for In These Times,  was attending a public meeting in Washington, D.C. last week , where Dave Cote – the Honeywell CEO – was asked about labor issues at their uranium conversion plant in Metropolis, Ill.

I had no idea where that is, so I looked it up. I learned it’s the home of Superman and near the Kentucky border. Now converting uranium makes sense. They’re trying to save Superman!

In all seriousness, it looks to be pretty bad. Apparently uranium was released into the atmosphere. Which is bad enough on its own. But it was caused by a non-union engineer who was performing the job of a union worker.

Bad, bad, bad in the union world.

So Elk asked Cote about this release and their labor practices and, rather than saying they were there to discuss how to lower taxes and not to talk about that plant, Elk had the microphone ripped out of his hands.

But it doesn’t end there.

In Elk’s own words (you have to read it to believe it):

After the panel ended, I went up to Cote and told him “I want to talk you about Metropolis, Illinois.” Cote immediately ran out a fire exit with an entourage of people following him. An unidentified man who was with Cote blocked the fire exit and shoved me as I attempted to walk through it. I informed him that this was an illegal to block a fire exit like this.

I saw another fire exit that was nearby and ran through it to find Honeywell CEO David Cote in a room behind the set of doors. Upon seeing me, Cote and his entourage immediately began to run away and quickly exited through another set of doors. I attempted to follow Cote through that set of doors, but was blocked by the same unidentified man and another man, whose nametag identified him as Honeywell External Communications Director Rob Ferris.

Ferris barricaded me in the room for several minutes and atferwards had the Capitol Police detain me. They released me after 10 minutes when they realized I had done nothing more than try to follow a CEO down a hallway.

What Should Have Happened?

Rob Ferris is a communications professional. This is not his first trip around the block. Surely he’s media trained his CEO.

There is a tactic in media training called blocking and bridging.

Politicians are notorious for using it. You see it when they say something such as, “We’re not here today to talk about that, but what I can tell you is our healthcare package serves all people.”

Athletes and celebrities accused of wrongful doing are also very good at it, “I’m not here today to talk about that, but what I can tell you is my latest movie made $16 gazillion dollars.”

Of course, you eventually have to answer the question of your policies or your drug use or who you’re dating or of groping other men, but you can do it in on your own terms, not that of the reporter.

Cote should have let Elk finish his question and then responded with, “Mr. Elk. Thank you for your question. We’re not here to talk about that today, rather about how to lower taxes.” And then gone on to talk to his key messages, which I only have to assume he had.

If Elk is the reporter he seems to be, he’d have asked the question again. And Cote could have repeated his response.

THEN someone from his communications team could interrupt and say they’ll schedule a separate call to discuss his questions later and move on.

If they’d done that, this would have been a non-story. Sure, Elk would have been mad. And the people in the room would have wondered what was going on. But there wouldn’t be pages of results in a Google search condemning Rob Ferris.

But to grab the microphone from his hands and then run away from him while your team barricades him a room?

That’s a story. A completely unavoidable story.

And, of course, in today’s digital age, there is video of Elk trying to ask his question and having the microphone ripped from his hands, which you can find below or by clicking here.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • I have no comment other than the sound of my jaw dropping

    •  @KenMueller Right?!? Did you watch the video? It’s astounding.

      •  @ginidietrich yeah. wow. When I was a reporter I never experienced anything like that. Yikes.

        •  @ginidietrich It actually sounds like a female reporter near the end tries to discredit the reporter by claiming he’s not a real “member of the press”

        •  @KenMueller It wasn’t a female reporter. It was a staffer for the Congressman who was hosting the event. 

        •  @KenMueller I heard that part, ridiculous.

  • I’m with @KenMueller on this one–wow. I can’t believe someone even thought that was a good idea. If anything, it only hinders the CEO’s reputation for avoiding the question (which no doubt will be raised again and again, thanks to this incident magnifying it!) And it feeds into the stereotype that PR professionals are lackeys and aren’t to be trusted by the press.
    Seriously, this is the kind of stuff movies are made for– here’s to hoping Mike Elk at least gets a “made for TV” movie out of this crazy story.

  • Wow. Where are the cooler heads that prevail in all this? You’re right not to call him a PR Professional. He’s more of a PR bouncer or PR body guard. 

    •  @EricaAllison Can you imagine?! When I was reading the reporter’s account of it, my jaw dropped to the floor. That’s why I just quoted him instead of relaying the story. Un-freaking-believable.

  • It seems like this PR team hadn’t had a crisis management situation, ever. Handled in “panic-mode” to say the least. :-(is it petty to point out he was not, in fact locked in a room, he was just not permitted to exit in the direction he preferred? I bet it is, but I had a completely different visual before reading the article. (hanging flickering light fixture, aluminum chair & table, bread & cheese for dinner, two guards at the door, iron bars for a window, hand reaching out to passersby) <—I am dramatic, though.

    •  @OneJillian He was locked in a room. The first time he wasn’t allowed to exit, he turned to find another door, and that’s when he was locked in the room. They even got police to detain him, until police realized he was doing nothing more than trying to follow the CEO. At that point, they asked him if he’d like to press charges. He didn’t at the time, but did on Monday.

      •  @ginidietrich  @OneJillian The part where the executives RUN AWAY? I mean…. who thought that was a good strategy? 

        •  @Lisa Gerber  @OneJillian As @BobReed said, “Run away!”

  • Jeez.  Reminds me of King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:  “Run away!!”

    •  @BobReed Run away! Run away! 
      Can you imagine EVER doing that?! I once had a client we media trained to death. There was one question we didn’t want him to answer because it was being investigated and, while the company was cooperating with authorities, it wasn’t something that could be discussed. So the interview ends and the client is walking the reporter to the elevator. He said, “Man, am I glad you didn’t ask about XYZ.” 
      Oh flipping A.

      •  @ginidietrich OMG!  

      • KabiDG

         @ginidietrich HAH HAH HAH! OK, that is bad.

        •  @KabiDG I wanted to murder him. Of course, I didn’t coerce the reporter into the elevator, push the button, and then take the client down the back stairs. The poor guy ended up getting fired. 

  • I have no words for this choad.

    •  @jasonkonopinski Choad is a great word for him.

  • Come on. This has to be some kind of skit for a PR comedy/reality TV show. This cannot have really happened. I was laughing through the whole thing! Laughing – nervous for my industry, not laughing – funny. 
    Prior to coming over here, I was just reading about this Japanese company that compared radiation to angry wives to try and make it more understandable to the general public. What’s going on this morning?
    Also, it’s snowing like a blizzard here. I think I need to go back to bed. 

    • I meant to add this link about the Japanese company in case anyone needed more PR dark humor this morning:

    •  @Lisa Gerber It’s snowing in June? You definitely need to go back to bed. You clearly have caused something in the universe to rock off kilter. 

  • Honeywell made a huge mistake. Everyone knows that the best way to hide is to close your eyes and put your fingers in your ears. This is so bad you can’t help but hope they get slapped with a much bigger problem than they had before.
    They created an issue that didn’t have to exist.

    •  @TheJackB They totally created this. It’s really unbelievable to me. They had to know this question would come up, if not at this event, at a future event. It’s the job of Ferris and his team to prepare the CEO for these types of questions. Maybe he can’t/won’t answer it, but running from a reporter is NOT the way to handle it.

  • Truth is stranger than fiction. Boggles the mind. Cheers! Kaarina

  • This doesn’t happen often (anyone who knows me will agree) but I’m just speechless … 

  • mylefttom

    Well this is plain & simple. It’s not a ‘mistake’ or a ‘gaffe’ or an ‘inappropriate response’ by Honeywell’s thugs. It goes well beyond PR as well. This is illegal. This is a prosecutable offense committed against the civil rights of a person. There is only one reasonable response: Arrest Rob Ferris and try him for a civil rights violation.

    •  @mylefttom It sounds like that’s what is going to happen. At first Elk said he wasn’t interested in pressing charges. But then he thought about it all weekend and told PR Daily on Monday he was going to do just that.

    •  @mylefttom Maybe they thought they were “Too Big to Answer Questions.”

    • KabiDG

       @mylefttom My thoughts, exactly.  Unlawful imprisonment comes to mind. 

  • AGOG. I am. #ThatIsAll. Another sad day in PR. Oh, yeah, I’m not in PR any more. I erased that from my title.

    •  @Soulati | B2B Social Media Marketing I told you you’d be astonished!

  • JillComm

    Some people’s children.

    •  @JillComm LOL! That’s what my mom always says.

  • Well it looks like the reporter got a “better” story than he even expected. It’s easy to forget that some people just don’t understand common sense professionalism, that is until people like Elk remind you.

    •  @rachaelseda I guess you don’t really think about what you’re doing, when you’re in the heat of things. But I’d like to think most of us know better than to make a reporter mad like that. Jeez Louise.

  • belllindsay

    Crazy town Gini. That’s not how *you* operate, is it….? 😉

    •  @belllindsay It totally is. When I see you next month, you’ll see. I’ll be locking all sorts of people in rooms so they can’t talk to you.

  • AppearIn

    I think the “media training called blocking and bridging” was taken literally. haha

  • debdobson62

    All I can say is simply wow.  Truly unbelievable.

    •  @debdobson62 This is something you’d typically find and send to me!

  • So apparently the training they did was of the Athletic type, thus all the running around.
    It literally appears that they had PLANNED this sort of Escape Tactic, which makes it all the more baffling.  Every time I go to write my blog post on Common Sense: Marketing, PR & Life I start to think… “well everything you’re saying Amy, is OBVIOUS.” Then a story like this surfaces and I know I need to write it.

    •  @AmyMccTobin Yes, you need to write it. Just because it’s obvious to you does not mean it is to anyone else. Morons. Of course, the people who need to read it, won’t.

      •  @ginidietrich Yes, I’ll write it, send it to you, and we will all drop our jaws and talk about morons… and then another story will surface the next week. 🙁

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  • Grazie! Evidently one of two things is going on. Rob Ferris has not trained to truly perform this role or he somehow believes his training is no longer relevant. Either way this is not going to end well.

    •  @hackmanj It’s going to suck to have this on his record. Did you see @AppearIn comment? It made me LOL

      •  @ginidietrich  @AppearIn lol! Just read that. Sweetness.

  • NicoleJLeBlanc

    There has been no shortage of cringeworthy PR gaffs, but this goes way beyond just your run of the mill #PRfail. It is astounding to think that ANY professional, nevermind the CEO of a Fortune 100 company, would actually think they could physically run away from a question they don’t want to answer.  The fact that one of the culprits was a communications director, who is likely specifically trained in crisis management, not only particpated in this circus but LOCKED a journalist in a room is just unfathomable.
    This is where I have to come back to the numerous, highly publicized #PRfails and #Businessfails – because how are companies STILL not understanding that in the current social media landscape the truth will come out (ugly or not) and inapprorpriate behavior will be put on mass display becoming the subject of widespread public mockery?
    These “no brainer” communications 101 scenarios that go so awry don’t only hurt the brand’s reputation, but they risk their bottomline, shareholder value and more.

    •  @NicoleJLeBlanc You raise a really good point about companies still not understanding how this all works. It used to be Elk would write about this in his column and that’s as far as it would go. But now it’s spreading like wildfire. It makes me nuts to have to keep talking about this stuff, but I guess common sense isn’t always so.

    •  @NicoleJLeBlanc You put a finer point on this Keystone Cops approach to prickly questions from the media. 

  • I think there is more to this than meets the eye…….  Just for a second – image if….
    If – Dave Cote’s name were actually Clark Kent.
    If – Mike Elk (surely made up name) was actually called Lex Luthor.
    No one knows Rob Ferris’ real name but it sounds like he could be a mild mannered janitor type character  – but IF  he saw that Mike/Lex was carrying a strange green-ish glowing rock like substance and was walking towards his boss/hero/saviour of mankind with a menacing “I have the one thing that will bring you down” kinda look on his face…..
    Then his actions (Rob / whoever he is / I for one for his actions to save the Man of Steel) take on a whole new light.
    Sadly we will never truly know what happened in this room that day (though the other reports / live video feed seem to give a reasonable depiction) …….

    •  @Nic_Cartwright You know, that’s a very good point. I mean, the plant is in Metropolis. Surely there is more to this!

  • First – Wow. Just double, triple wow. 
    Second – the plant is in Metropolis? That makes it even more unbelievable. You can’t make this stuff up. And, I’ve driven through there a gaziillion times…and yes, have seen the Superman statue from the interstate. 
    Third – I’ve seen two videos with something similar.One was where the official escaped through a door and they locked the door behind them. What made it worse was that there was a window in the door and the entourage made faces at the reporter and used a scarf to cover the window. I can’t seem to find it though. The other was a community meeting and the PR person kept touching the reporter to divert the reporter from the hospital director. The PR person then pushed the camera. It was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. I used it in a media training session on what not to do:
    Fourth – Who the heck are these people?!?! Sad. Truly sad.

    •  @lauraclick What the heck is wrong with people?? Seriously. I’m using both of these in media training. Thanks for the tip!

      •  @ginidietrich Sure thing. I’ll let you know if I ever find that other video. I hate that I can’t find it back.

  • ladylaff

    “Thank you for the question. Although we didn’t come here to talk about this type of issue today, I will say that we take these matters very seriously and are in the process of investigating the situation so unfortunately I can’t comment further at this time.”  HELLO!!!

  • rjfrasca

    He got that maneuver from President Charles Logan’s PR team in 24 somewhere circa season 5. Anyone who watched that show remember when they locked the reporter in the room at the President house? (You’re all welcome for me adding valuable commentary to this thread 😉 … )

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