Par Excellence

How well do the spun spin? That’s the non-legal question on the table as the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press squabble in court over former Pioneer Press publisher Par’s preposterous paper pilfering prank.

To the drive-by observer, Par Ridder’s defense comes across as “sure, I stole your property, but I didn’t use it to hurt you, so get over it.” Putting aside how likely it is that the stolen information was never used – not very, it seems — that argument doesn’t pass the smell test at the water cooler.

Imagine if someone stole your car and their defense was “sure, I stole your car, but I didn’t ram you with it, so get over it.” Note: The stuff Mr. Ridder stole was probably far more valuable than a car.

As a legal matter, I imagine Mr. Ridder’s defense team does have to show the Pioneer Press wasn’t actually harmed by the action. As a PR matter, however, publicly arguing that “no blood, no foul” point is making Mr. Ridder look like a buffoon.

If that’s the only legal argument they have, no amount of word-smithing can limit the PR damage. So, the lesson here isn’t that Mr. Ridder should spin better. The lesson is that Mr. Ridder shouldn’t steal stuff, because no amount of spin can get your reputation back when you act like a criminal.

Perhaps even more damaging to Mr. Ridder’s long-term reputation might be this tidbit from today’s coverage: “In his testimony Tuesday, Ridder professed to know very little specific information about the Pioneer Press’ marketing strategies, advertising rates, business plan or current financial situation.” Ridder was the Pioneer Press publisher for three years.

My goodness. If that’s true, Mr. Ridder should never work in publishing again. If it’s false, he might be joining Scooter Libby in perjury prison.

– Loveland

8 thoughts on “Par Excellence

  1. It’s so easy to look foolish. Ridder makes it look like a slam dunk. Northwest Airlines looked foolish Tuesday when, in the Strib, it blamed its high rate of flight cancellations mostly on weather. Nobody believes that, most especially the people saying it, I’d guess. By Wednesday the airline admitted pilots were calling in sick at an unusually high rate. Northwest was pretty careful, it seems, not to dump on the pilots but to just say what happened. If they’d done that a day earlier, they would have had more credibility. Just tell us what’s going on, folks, don’t try to tell me the elephant in my living room is really an end table.

    Yes, as Joe says, there are always other parts of the business that need to be taken into account when communications strategy is developed. Legal position now and down the line, what will shareholders do, what about how employees will feel. But you really don’t have to explain the truth much, whereas elaborate spin becomes more contorted as each day passes. Telling what’s really happening can have short-term costs and long-term benefits. Such a long-term benefit might be not hiring publishers who don’t know the business and who will lie and steal. Not a bad strategy, and one that doesn’t need much spin.

  2. You say, “Imagine if someone stole your car and their defense was ‘sure, I stole your car, but I didn’t ram you with it, so get over it.’ ”

    I understand the point you’re making, but the analogy doesn’t quite work. If someone steals your car, the damage is already done — you’re out a car and likely a chunk of change. If the thief rammed you with it, double the trouble.

    But in the case of intellectual property — information on the PiPress and its strategies or whatever it was — no harm is really done until that info is put to use to gain an advantage.

  3. jloveland says:

    Damn you with your logic! Great point, Mike, and I actually didn’t think that logic through.

    Logic aside, though, the general public’s logic is likely every bit as bad as mine. The point I’m making is that line of argument is a lousy PR defense in the court of public opinion. Most of the audience isn’t giving this much brainspace. For us, someone saying “yes I stole it, but it didn’t hurt you” sounds like a slimey guy working a technical loophole, not a dignified guy restoring his reputation.

  4. John Reinan says:

    I’m a biased observer, since my wife and I were both Stribbers who left during the recent staff cutbacks.

    Yes, the Strib and Avista have been handling this miserably from a PR standpoint. But could they really be doing anything differently? Par gave them a rotten hand to play.

    I can think of one thing they could be doing: making strong public statements about ethical business practices, rather than relying on their court testimony to convey their sentiments.

    Maybe I should review all the coverage before I say this, but my recollection (and believe me, I’ve been reading every word) is that Harte, Kwon, Finkelstein — all the Avista players — have let their depositions do the talking.

    In their depositions, which have been reported in the news coverage of this week’s hearing, they’ve said that Ridder’s actions were wrong and he shouldn’t have done it. But in their actual comments to the media, they’ve stuck to defending him and giving him votes of confidence.

    In other words, when forced by the court system, they profess what they think the right course should be. But when talking to their customers, employees and readers through their own medium, they pull back from that position.

    My guess is that the Avista people don’t really care about PR. I’m not being cynical, just realistic. Everyone knows they’re in it for the short term. None of them has any ties to this community, and they probably aren’t worried about their legacy in Twin Cities business lore.

    Their only incentive is to try and sell this newspaper in two, three or five years for the best price they can get. PR has less value to people who don’t see an angle to being loved or respected in the community.

    All that said, HOW COULD RIDDER BE SO STUPID? Doesn’t know about the strategy or finances of the business he was paid many hundreds of thousands (if not millions) to run? Routinely signed legal documents without reading them? Signed his non-compete because he thought the other kids would make fun of him behind his back if he didn’t?

    My God (deep breath). Satire fails me — in this case, it is self-generating.

  5. Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen made their careers writing columns in Miami about the endlessly multifaceted stupidity of criminals and cops. Run-of-the-mill doper and grifters, hustlers and thieves. Par is leading the parade of white-collar criminals demonstrating that they have souls and intellects as tiny as the most wretched carjacker in Miami. “I was the publisher, but I don’t know much more than where the men’s room was at the Pioneer Press.” As Dave Barry would say, “I’m not making this up.”

    Unfortunately, John, “ethical business practices” has become an oxymoron. My dad was a VP of General Mills when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. I heard him struggle with the occasional ethical issue — doing business in Africa or the Middle East, it was normal to pay bribes or at least grease the wheels a little. General Mills wouldn’t do that (and it was illegal under federal law) and they lost some business because of it. I kind of thought, as a kid, that big business was OK, if a little tightass.

    In those quaint days, stock was a reflection of a business’s core performance more than a speculative game. And workers were paid a decent wage, and CEO pay was maybe 20 times the average worker’s pay. By 1990 CEO pay was 170 times the average worker’s pay, and currently it’s 411 times the average worker’s pay.

    Money corrupts, and big piles of money corrupt absolutely. Speculation has replaced capitalism, and the kinds of people who are looking for the best way to get the biggest pile of loot are crowding out, like invasive species, people who care about employees, community, quality and legacy. They make the Miami hustler look pretty good. A petty thief robs one person. We saw the S&L bandits rob hundreds of thousands at a time.

    Ethical business practices? They went out with the hula hoop, it seems. I find it sad. There’s plenty to admire and be wonderfully amazed by in this world, but not much of it resides in the economic or government part of the human adventure.

  6. Curtis says:

    I still think the folks in our industry are too pessimistic about big business, its leaders and the decisions that are made. After all, aren’t we the ones trying to counsel “them” to do what’s ethical AND best for the business?

    Twits like Ridder and his crew are doing a great job ruining any optimism among the public. It may be naïve, but I think the court will hit him hard. At least I hope.

  7. jl says:

    I hope so too Curtis. I’m not a big eye-for-an-eye guy, but this brand of stealing is just as wrong as other kinds of stealing our judicial system punishes harshly.

    I’m open to the possibiliity that Rowdy crumudgeons are too pessimistic about big business (though I’m obviously unconvinced!). However, I’m much further from being convinced that the PR/advertising/marketing industry as a whole is too pessimistic about big business. Because we have our own short-term revenue obsessions, our industry is more often lapdog than watchdog.

  8. Curtis says:

    Great point. The “lapdog than watchdog” is a great analogy. And I certainly agree with the comparison to other kinds of steeling.

    I have been lucky. The (most) senior practitioners I’ve worked with have been very outspoken when clients have tightroped the ethical wire. But, as my hair falls out and I become more Rowdy, I do see more examples of ruthless money-grubbing. Homer Simpson was right, “ignorance is …something.”

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