I’m currently obsessed with these women who have swindled and tricked seemingly intelligent, wealthy men out of their money. When the story of Anna Delvay hit the newsstands four years ago, I read everything I could about the case. Not because I admire her, but because I (still) can’t understand how anyone could do what she did—and get away with it for as long as she did. My friend Katie and I keep joking that we’re just going to start telling people that the wire is on the way. Over and over and over again.
And don’t get me started on Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. Just four years ago, her company was valued at more than $9 BILLION. She had 800 employees. And members of her board were some of the most well-known and well-respected people in the world. And now she’s headed to prison.
You can kind of see why she did what she did. Tech entrepreneurs have been faking it until they make it for eternity. Her undoing was that it was a healthcare startup. They were testing a prototype on human beings—without FDA approval or any real technology that anyone had approved. It’s illegal, unethical, and wrong, but it’s fascinating from a behavioral psychology perspective.
In the final episode of this season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Lenny Bruce says to Midge, “Ninety percent of this game is how they see you. They see you hanging with Tony Bennett, they think you deserve to be there. They see you hauled off to jail for saying f–k at a strip club, they think you deserve that also. Wise up.”
Fake it until you make it is a common refrain among entrepreneurs who think the only way to succeed is to hustle all day and all night long. But there also is something to be said for hanging out with Tony Bennett versus people in a strip club. Perception is reality.
Fake It ‘Til You Make It
Fake it ’til you make it. Perception is reality. There is something to be said for hanging out with Tony Bennett versus people in a strip club. But when is it too far? And why is the communications team blamed when it is?
Earlier this year, I read an article in PR Daily titled, “PR missteps accelerated the downfall of Elizabeth Holmes.” Gosh, I’m sorry. I thought the conniving, lying, and illegal activity accelerated her downfall. I’m pretty sure PR had nothing to do with it. And yet, even in our industry trade pubs, we are blamed.
It’s difficult to determine if Theranos had a corporate communications team or employed an agency. It’s hard to tell if there was anyone else outside of one woman—Brooke Buchanan, who left the company in 2016.
In the documentary, The Inventor, Patrick O’Neill is touted as the company’s chief creative officer. He led the creative and advertising teams, including his former employer, TBWA. Outside of that, though, there isn’t much mention of who, other than Elizabeth Holmes herself, was handling communications—and certainly, there wasn’t an expert in the room.
The PR Daily article reads, “While Holmes’ ultimate unraveling might have been inevitable given the size and scale of her deception, the following communications missteps—each of which could have been prevented with a cohesive strategy in place—proved particularly disastrous for her cause.”
The author then says that communications professionals could have prevented the chaos inside, they could have changed the way Holmes interacted with journalists at the end, and they would have summoned supporters to speak on her behalf.
No Amount of PR Would Have Saved Theranos
While I was not in the room, I have become a bit of an armchair quarterback, having read everything published, watched the documentary, and listened to the podcast. I even watched The Dropout. I can tell you this based on all of that: no one was allowed in that room other than Elizabeth and Sunny.
The attorneys called all shots, especially after the Wall Street Journal article ran. Not even the best communicator on earth could have prevented the chaos, mitigated the negative blowback, or summoned supporters on her behalf.
They simply were not allowed.
Holmes’ ultimate unraveling was the size and scale of her deception, and no one—not Gandhi or Mother Theresa or the Pope or Ruth Bader Ginsberg—could have prevented that. So to blame the communications professionals or lack of a cohesive strategy is ludicrous.
Everyone Bought Her Story
Before its downfall, when media outlets reached out to Theranos for an interview with Elizabeth Holmes, it was reported that they were always met with two questions: What time and where?
That could have been inexperience, it could have been directive, or it could have been that Holmes’s assistant was the one fielding those calls and her job was to schedule as many interviews as her schedule allowed.
It also could have been that the strategy was to launch and brand the company with PR…something we all dream of and rarely see. I, for one, would have been happy to field interviews from the likes of Fortune and Forbes, the New Yorker, and Vanity Fair. To have them chasing us versus us chasing them? Yes, please and thank you.
Holmes was the Silicon Valley darling, and everyone wanted a piece of her. In the documentary, The Inventor, Ken Auletta, the journalist who wrote the New Yorker profile on Holmes, got choked up when he talked about how duped and deceived he felt after lauding her and then realizing she had lied to him.
They all bought her story—hook, line, and sinker.
It Was the Fault of Only One Person
The tech industry is interesting, and the media outlets play their game. If they don’t ask the tough questions and glorify the founders, they’ll gain access to early product versions or to the CEO when they make their rounds. However, they can be locked out of all good stories and even lose revenue if they don’t.
Hindsight is, of course, 20/20, but when the tech media treated her “invention” like the next smartphone or VR-produced travel game, they didn’t ask tough questions. They also became culpable in the story. When my friends and I discuss this whole saga, I say over and over again, it’s OK if a product goes live before it’s ready, if it’s an app or some fancy new phone, but when people’s lives are at stake, there has to be a different level of regulation—Silicon Valley or not; young female entrepreneur or not.
Yet, no one seemed to question the fact that there wasn’t a working prototype, that it hadn’t received FDA approval, that it hadn’t been peer-reviewed, and that it wasn’t being regulated. It was a really good story—and we all love the story of a 19-year-old college dropout who makes it big. If that young entrepreneur is a woman, the story is even more compelling.
It’s easy to sit here and place blame now that we know the whole story. It’s easy to say it was a media problem or a PR problem. But both of those statements are wrong. It’s an Elizabeth Holmes problem. Full stop. No one could have prevented this but her. It took an entire army of former employees, high-profile reporters, and finally, a very boring government agency to shut it all down—something only one person created.