By John Stauber on October 10, 2009

The Seattle Times' Jonathan Martin reports, "In response to a request to talk with [T-Mobile] CEO Robert Dotson and other executives this week, I got an email back from the PR firm Waggener Edstrom Worldwide that ended with a strange request.

Hi Jonathan, Thank you for your phone call this afternoon and your patience while I looked into your request. While we won't be able to provide you with an interview we are able to provide the following statement. ... Please note that if you plan to use this statement in your piece, I am not a T-Mobile spokesperson and to use my name would be inaccurate.

If you are required to include attribution please do so to a 'T-Mobile Spokesperson'. Thank you and have a great weekend! Best, Danielle

To be clear, the statement is from a 'T-Mobile spokesperson,' but the spokesperson has no name, and saying that the spokesperson does have a name would be 'inaccurate.' ... John Stauber, author of Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry, said farming out media inquiries to external PR firms is a strategy to 'distance the company from uncomfortable questions.' "

Comments

This was a definite PR fail. However, I have to argue that last scathing thought about external PR firms.

I'm an independent PR consultant now and no longer at an agency but my experience has been the same in both arenas: journalists and news directors prefer to work with me instead of directly with my clients because they know I will respond quickly, I will encourage the client to participate in an interview request when fear would have compelled them to turn it down themselves, and I will help the journalist prepare a well-focused interview by often pulling together talking points (a backgrounder or list of information that the source is best qualified to address).

Every profession has people who "get it" and people who don't. PR is certainly no exception--agency or not. No PR firm should ever comment directly on behalf of a client. But the intention seems to be that the agency representative thought it best to respond in some way instead of a “no comment.” It was a tough call, but the wrong one in the end.

What L. Glowacz says is frequently true - journalists prefer good PR people when they are accessible to them.

It's true that the "I am/am not a spokesperson" is intentionally confusing, but the case strikes me as an agency employee doing what they can to help the reporter do his job, while still complying with their client's unwillingness to talk. Many if not most agencies won't comment for the client as a matter of policy, so the employee may also have been going rogue to some extent. Asking that their name not be used would then be a way of protecting him or herself.