Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Why CEOs Need Media Training

A cautionary tale from Dan Lyons’s must-read new book, Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble. (“Spinner” is the nickname he gives to Hubspot’s PR person.)

In the first week of December Spinner sends around an email informing us that [Hubspot CEO, Brian] Halligan has been written up in an awesome new story in the New York Times. She wants us all to promote the article on our social feeds and drive some traffic to it. Spinner told me a few months ago that a Times journalist, Adam Bryant, had asked to interview Halligan for a feature called Corner Office. That column is usually a puff piece where a CEO gets asked some softball questions, but Spinner was nervous about it, because, as she put it, Halligan has a tendency to stick his foot in his mouth and say stupid things when he gets in front of a reporter.

I offered to help Halligan prepare by conducting practice interviews with him. I’ve interviewed thousands of people, and the ones who do best are the ones who practice. Bryant wouldn’t ask any tough questions, but Halligan should have two or three points he wanted to make and not wander off them. Tech companies often to do interviews, but HubSpot already had me working in house, so why not take advantage of this?

I also offered to go to New York with Halligan and Spinner when he was doing the interview. I know Adam Bryant, and I figured it couldn’t hurt for Halligan to have a friendly connection tagging along. Spinner did not want my help. Perhaps she saw the interview as a feather in her cap and didn’t want to share the credit.

Spinner flew solo, Halligan got no media training, and now the article is out and Halligan, predictably, has blown it. The main point of the Halligan article is that Halligan loves to take naps. “Brian Halligan, Chief of HubSpot, on the Value of Naps,” is the headline. Halligan thinks naps are so important that he installed a nap room with a hammock at HubSpot. So far so good. Taking naps is the kind of oddball thing that Corner Office is looking for.

That’s the angle that got Halligan in the door. Now he has a chance to tell people—and by people, I mean investors—what HubSpot does. Most people have never heard of HubSpot. Even people who have heard of HubSpot sometimes think it is a marketing agency or a consulting firm.

Halligan should have a very simple brief: HubSpot is a cloud software company, selling marketing automation software and run by people from MIT. HubSpot is a leading player in a very hot market space, and the company is growing like crazy. That’s it. That’s all he needs to do. Talk about naps and plug the company.

But during the interview Halligan starts rambling and talking about how HubSpot likes to hire really young people. Maybe he sees the interview as a recruiting opportunity, a way to reach Millennials. If so, he’s wrong. The Times media kit says the median age of a Times subscriber is 50. According to the Pew Research Center, people under 30 make up only one-third of the paper’s audience. The college kids Halligan wants to hire get their news on Facebook and BuzzFeed. That’s where you go to talk about your fun-loving, youth-oriented culture.

Halligan tells the Times that HubSpot is trying to “build a culture specifically to attract and retain Gen Y’ers.” Yikes. I understand what he is trying to say, but he is getting a bit too close to saying that he would rather hire young people than old people, which is something you definitely don’t want to say in public, even if it’s true.

Still, if he leaves things there, he might be okay. I read on. Next, Halligan explains that young people make better employees, especially in the technology industry, where everything is changing so fast that older people just can’t keep up.

Then comes the money quote: “In the tech world, gray hair and experience are really overrated.”

Only an imbecile would say this. Halligan is essentially admitting that Hubspot discriminates on the basis of age. Age discrimination has become a huge issue in Silicon Valley. Halligan is not the only tech CEO who prefers to hire young people; he’s just the only one dumb enough to admit it. Halligan has not just put his foot in his mouth—he has taken his foot out of his mouth and stepped on a land mine.

I don’t know if Adam Bryant included these comments on purpose, knowing how incendiary they might be. Surely Halligan talked about all sorts of things in the interview, and Bryant cherry-picked which comments to publish. That’s why doing an interview is always risky. That’s also why CEOs need media training.