On AOL PR, Truth And "On The Record"

When it comes to PR, there is damage control and then there is just plain cluelessness. Ten days ago, I found out that Aol’s chief technology officer Ted Cahall was planning to leave the company. Today, it became official. Even though our information was correct, Aol made repeated statements, on the record, that our story was wrong. To put it more bluntly, Aol lied to us, and also encouraged other news publications to say that our story was incorrect.

When we contact a company representative about a story that is accurate, they will usually either confirm the story on or off record, or simply not respond. Any of those responses is perfectly appropriate.

Here’s what Tricia Primrose Wallace, Aol’s executive vice president of communications, said to us in an email: “No, he is not leaving.”

She follow up with: “You should update your story.”

Ok, we updated the story. Even though Cahall was telling his team that he was leaving the company.

She later reiterated that Cahall was not leaving. I asked if he was still CTO. She replied, “Yes.” I asked if he “will he continue in his current position?” She never responded.

Today, she sent me another email informing me:

There’s been a change in a situation that you and I talked about a week or so ago and I wanted to immediately let you know. Ted Cahall has decided to leave AOL—we’re announcing a search for a new CTO this morning. Ted’s going to be transitioning with the company until we find a new global CTO.

In PR speak, the translation is this: “Your story a week ago is still wrong then, but it is no longer untrue now. Have a nice day.”

PR is not supposed to be fiction and spin. At least not all the time. Occasionally the communications professionals at companies, particularly publicly traded companies, are supposed to actually tell the truth. And perhaps help journalists and bloggers with a story instead of sending them off on a fake trail.