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Bridget Foley’s Diary: Don’t Ask

WWD's executive editor weighs in on the relationship in the fashion industry between the press and p.r. representatives.

The artist isn’t doing interviews.

This story first appeared in the November 20, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

I received that text last week from a young colleague, Taylor Harris, WWD’s co-Eye editor, after I’d left a party we both attended and which she was assigned to cover. It was the opening of Isa Genzken’s spectacular retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art sponsored by Céline and hosted by Phoebe Philo. The night before, I attended the Pratt Institute Legends gala which honored, among others, Pete Hamill. WWD’s Rosemary Feitelberg was covering. Completely different affairs, yet linked in the absurdist manner in which the press — or at least this press, WWD — was handled.

Allow me to go old-school in my exasperation. Whenever John Fairchild, the legendary god of Fairchild Publications, was asked for his own job description, his answer proved quick and succinct: “I’m a reporter.”

Anyone — even those very junior at the time — who spent 10 minutes under Mr. Fairchild’s watch learned that he wasn’t articulating his job description only, but yours, too. Whether you were on the news or fashion side, the Eye desk, no matter. You were a reporter. So get the story.

WWD’s philosophy of coverage hasn’t changed. The industry has changed a great deal, but our philosophy of coverage, no. One aspect of the industry that has changed tremendously is the ever-increasing level of control brands try to exert over their press coverage. It is every communications director’s job to maximize positive coverage and minimize the negative. To the former end, timing of a story can be a point of countless back and forth. Yes, companies have strategies; press is part of those strategies and a well-timed piece, a launch story, for example, often an integral part of that plan. (Hello, beauty industry.) We, too, love it when we can run a “first-look” story on the day of the opening event. But zeroing in on a specific day with no leeway can backfire. In the wake of big, breaking news — natural disaster or the death of someone major to our world or a shocking executive change — there goes the space. (I’m speaking about the printed WWD newspaper only. There’s always room on WWD.com, but no matter how much we all love technology, at WWD we find anecdotally [sometimes via vociferous expression] that many of our subjects and readers still love the printed paper as much as we do.)

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Nevertheless, I understand such efforts. We all do. Just as the press has a function, the p.r. side has an essential function, and the relationship between the two sides, while at times antagonistic, is more often symbiotic. While it’s not the official job of either side to facilitate the work of the other, in practical terms, we do. Yet sometimes interests and professional responsibilities collide. At those times, we appreciate when the press-p.r. symbiosis manifests in a willingness on the p.r. side to explain to the brand bigwigs why our coverage won’t conform to their expectations.

It’s trying to control the “light features” that baffles the most. I’m always amused-confused when the phrase “embargoed until…” is invoked regarding pre-season photos, or when potential subjects of thematic or roundup pieces demand to know “who else is included.” While scheduling interviews for a recent piece, Miles Socha was told that a particular designer prefers not to participate in features with “miscellaneous celebrities,” never mind that Ralph Lauren and Karl Lagerfeld were among the responding miscellany. (By the way, when asked for a quote/sketch/etc., Karl never, ever asks “who else” is in.)

Again, those examples involve procedural give and take. I may find it frustrating at times, but I get it. Trying to control our reporting processes is a different matter. Our job as reporters is to get the story. Event coverage should fall within the most fun and benign aspect of that role. It doesn’t involve writing about poor numbers or a disappointing collection; unless a fist fight breaks out, the tone typically swings upbeat. Reporting takes two forms — observation, which is passive, and discovery, which is active. At a party (or at a fashion show at which this superstar or that ingénue is sitting front row), the latter means making conversation, seeking quotes, getting something that everyone else won’t have.

At the Pratt event, Rosemary sought to secure a few minutes with Mr. Hamill, a genuine journalistic legend and brilliant storyteller. Assuming a fruitful 10 minutes, she hoped to run a Q&A. I arrived at the Mandarin Oriental just as people were heading upstairs for dinner. I went to my table and, finding no one there and people meandering slowly to other tables, returned to reception where I saw Rosemary standing with Mr. Hamill and an agitated-looking young woman off to the side. Mr. Hamill gave every indication of being happy to speak with Rosemary; nevertheless, the young woman seemed increasingly antsy. She ultimately cut in and said that it was time to show Mr. Hamill to his table — before the announcement came to “please take your seats.”

Not helping WWD obtain something exclusive was a minor irritation. More surprising was the young woman’s apparent immunity to Mr. Hamill’s interest in giving a brief interview. I realize she had a job to do: Get Pete Hamill’s rear end into Pete Hamill’s seat. And all event p.r.’s are charged ultimately — thank God — with making the train run on time. Yet nothing here caused a delay. The young woman could have facilitated Rosemary’s pursuit of interesting coverage — a benefit to Pratt — had she suggested that Mr. Hamill and Rosemary sit down on a bench for a few minutes and added, “I’ll get you when the dinner announcement is made.”

That episode resulted from the hyper-expedient mind-set of a young person determined to do exactly as charged, no matter what.

The Céline situation speaks more directly to the ever-increasing brand yearning for complete control of editorial coverage.

Taylor and I walked in together, on the dot at seven. Phoebe greeted guests as a number of p.r.’s circulated nearby. I introduced Taylor and we commenced party talk; I asked after Phoebe’s children. She relayed a charming story about her eight-year-old daughter Maya’s request to change her name to Violet. She then told us how moving she found the exhibition. She said nothing remotely compromising professionally or personally. Nevertheless, Taylor went back to secure a comment that Phoebe would know was on the record, and was told no. Taylor then tried for Isa Genzken, and was told no.

This was at a press event. A senior brand executive, whether creative or business side, has no expectation of privacy when speaking with clearly identified journalists invited by her/his company for the sole purpose of covering the event. In technical terms, “off the record” is a stipulation that must be agreed upon overtly by both parties prior to conversation. (Off the record used to be invoked typically as a protection for sources revealing substantive information. Increasingly, some try it out for lesser matters: “I like pink — but that’s off the record.”)

The silent treatment is not unique to Céline. At Hedi Slimane’s runway debut for Saint Laurent, some editors were welcomed backstage — but for “congratulations only,” no questions. And celebrities recruited for front rows often pull the Garbo act. (Official brand ambassadors typically know what’s expected; if they need reminders, often the house p.r. steps in.)

Just this week, another WWD reporter experienced a do-not-approach situation. (This one’s admittedly off topic, but because it involves the cowering of a major institution, rather than attempted control of editorial, please indulge me.) Recently appointed accessories correspondent Lauren McCarthy wrote about the JAR exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for Monday’s paper. On Friday, Lauren tried gamely to secure a quote from Joel Rosenthal to no avail. She went with what she had and scheduled a Sunday walk-through in anticipation of running a larger piece on the completed installation on Tuesday. When she arrived, a lovely young p.r. woman explained that Mr. Rosenthal was in the gallery walking friends through the exhibit, and that “we have to steer clear,” or words close to that. This was a learning experience for a green reporter; rather than agree not to invade the space of the joaillerie genius, she should have tried to approach him. Understandably, manners and the awkward newness of the situation kept her from doing so. But what’s wrong with the Met? Isn’t The Metropolitan Museum of Art at least as powerful as JAR? If “no interviews” was part of the deal, how about asking, “Mr. Rosenthal, sir, we have a journalist coming. Could you make yourself scarce for 15 minutes?” (As planned, Rosenthal was nowhere in sight for the official press preview on Monday morning.) But I do digress.

Each situation is nuanced. Had Phoebe said anything that could have reflected negatively on Maya, or that seemed of serious concern to her as a mother, we wouldn’t have printed it. We’re not in the business of exploiting eight-year-olds. Similarly — lest dinner soirees now find me at a table alone by the kitchen door — when I’m at a seated event and someone says something amusing or remotely controversial that might make good copy, I’ll ask if I can use it for coverage. I do this not out of strict journalistic obligation — there is none — but because people let down their guards over dinner, and guests at a dinner are seated by their host. They shouldn’t have to totally clam up because they’re next to me.

Situational discretion aside, at WWD we adhere to very strict standards of journalism. Those standards do not and cannot include allowing brands to dictate the terms of our reporting.