Off message: Lay back on the long reads
When a journalist really wants to sink their teeth into you, it’s best to accept early on that all intervention is futile.
It’s easy to fool yourself in this age of social media into believing that less is more, particularly when it comes to the length of news stories.
After all, the Twitter world moves along nicely with a 140-word limit to its tweets. Newspapers have issued edicts to their writers to say more in less space. And the younger generation is going to grow up believing anything more than four lines of text on your cellphone is a novel.
But lurking around in this truncated world of ours is a very deadly animal, capable of probing the depths and leaving an impression that is hard to erase.
I’m referring to what is nowadays called the ‘long read’. These are the 5,000-plus word articles that take a subject and plumb its depths for all their worth. While readers of Euromoney are familiar with detailed investigations, I’m afraid such lengthy expositories are an increasingly rare breed.
Within the investment banking community, one of the most infamous of these long read articles appeared under the byline of investigative journalist Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone Magazine in 2009, in which he called Goldman Sachs “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”.
That kind of poetic turn of phrase is almost guaranteed to stick around for some time and in Goldman’s case it did. Taibbi went on to call the bank a “bubble machine”, blaming it for every market crash since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
So what prompted this rumination of mine on long read journalism? Well, the other day I decided to take a look at how Deutsche Bank was doing in managing its external communications. What I found was rather striking. During the second and third weeks of October, Deutsche managed to generate a stream of negative headlines for everything from implementing a hiring freeze, to low morale within the asset management group, to losing money in its ETF business. That may go down as one of the great losing streaks in investment bank PR history.
But as I looked further through the Deutsche Bank clip file, my eye was drawn back to a very lengthy piece that appeared in August in, of all places, the New Yorker magazine. Written by freelancer Ed Caesar, the story dissects the intrigue and legerdemain that took place on the bank’s equity desk in Moscow.
Specifically, the story focuses on the use of ‘mirror trades’ and money laundering on behalf of a few key Deutsche clients. It’s a rather tawdry tale of how a small band of Deutsche capital markets staff in Moscow facilitated the exit of millions of dollars’ worth of roubles from Russia, easily bypassing the bank’s internal money laundering regulations.
While the piece is notable for its explanation of how a handful of traders and sales people can successfully tarnish the reputation of an entire institution, there is one line in the story that particularly sticks out: “There was cultural criminality. Deutsche Bank was structurally designed by management to allow corrupt individuals to commit fraud.”
That line came from Eric Ben-Artzi, a former Deutsche risk analyst turned whistleblower, who was testifying before the US Securities and Exchange Commission.
So if Goldman had to learn to live with the vampire squid analogy, does Deutsche now have the ‘cultural criminality’ label stuck around its neck? No fun at all.
What is an experienced PR person to do if they’re staring down the barrel of a long-read investigative piece of a nasty nature.
I’m afraid the answer is: not much.
The nature of these pieces is such that most of the journalistic spadework is done before you’re even aware of it. There isn’t often an opportunity to do any preliminary work to soften the bite and by the time you’re asked for a comment it usually looks like pretty thin gruel in the larger context of a nasty piece.
This is one of those occasions for the unfortunate PR team when laying back and thinking of England is perhaps the best strategy.