The ‘sage of Omaha’ was staring at me patiently as I posed my first question, “You’re richer than Midas yet everyone thinks you’re the champ?”
In the course of our interview for IconicVoices.TV, Buffett confessed his secret to getting the royal treatment from journalists and in the course of things, out of life, is by building political capital thoughtfully for the day he may need it. As his partner, Charlie Munger noted, “our core competency is knowing we don’t know the future.”
His 10 simple rules for managing image are a matter of casting aside ego and making a candid self appraisal. In his case, he is happy being one part favorite uncle and one part poker champ. And although his rules may not make you as rich as he is, they will undoubtedly help you to have more and win over more fans.
1) It’s always prime time
There was a time Warren Buffett was paralyzed by the thought of giving a simple sales pitch. But he knew he would have to get over it to succeed (selling investment units in what would become Berkshire Hathaway).
So he taught himself:
“I was terrified of speaking in public and avoided taking any classes in college that required it. So I took a Dale Carnegie course when I got out of school. I spent one hundred bucks, got this little diploma, and even proposed to my wife during the term of the course. So I got my money’s worth.”
If you’re like most of us, you’ve been too busy to train for the podium, and no one in the company is going to say you need help, trust me. You would benefit, as Buffett did, from some professional coaching on how you are coming across — or not.
Worth noting, you are living in world of millennial employees that were born camera ready with monogrammed iPhones, and they are judging you by their standards. Communicating on the stump is now a core competency.
2) You aren’t too big to fail
Your day is crammed. When you see an email message from someone off your radar, your first reaction is “I’ll get back to you” and then you forward it. But while you dither, it may be a customer who calls your competitor instead.
Warren Buffett knows the narrative begins even when you don’t answer the call. He is never too busy to see if someone knows something he does not. He told me he always takes the call but doesn’t waste any time:
“I usually know within two or three minutes whether I have an interest. I always worry about appearing rude, because I can tell quickly, whether it’s just chatter.”
He prefers to get rid of the occasional errant inquiry in two minutes than miss a serious question he needs to answer.
3) The journalist is wrong but never in doubt
Buffett revealed one of the most profound insights anyone has ever had about the media:
“The biggest sin is to start with a working hypothesis but not be willing to give that up when the facts prove it’s incorrect or misleading.”
His point is that once someone has a hot idea, often they poke around for a few reliable sources, then sell themselves on it never once realizing they have been after one-sided evidence, not reality. It leads to “oops” more often than “eureka.”
Which explains why journalists write such rubbish about business because they rely on the people who tell them they are right, plaintiff lawyers or disgruntled ex-employees, competitors, activists, and regulators. As Buffett told me:
“people who have a vested interest (in one side of the story) are feeding the journalist confirmatory material all along the line. “
4) Reveal your weaknesses to disarm people
Buffett’s secret is that he undersells himself. When Buffett stumbled with an airline investment, he told his interviewer from the London Telegraph:
“Now I have an 800 number that I call if I get the urge to buy an airline stock. I call at two in the morning and I say: ‘My name is Warren and I’m an airoholic. If you see me trying to buy an airline, talk to me until the urge passes.”
5) More people, more problems
Most power players shy away from admitting error because the general counsel is whispering about liability. Ask the former CEOs of BP or VW if they were able to lawyer their way out of a crisis.
Buffett told me about how he thinks about human nature and the inevitability of bad news:
“I employ 330,000 people and I guarantee you someone is doing something wrong and you’ve got to do something about it fast. When you find out bad news correct it and report it immediately, if it is reportable, to the authorities. Get it right, get it fast, get it out, and get it over.”
Getting the news out is one thing, but making sure people are confident you know how to fix it is another. Buffett told me of the time he had to testify before the House Commerce Subcommittee investigating the Salomon Treasury scandal. Plaintiff lawyers were in line waiting for him to utter one word of culpability and I’m sure his corporate counselors were advising, “ plead the 5th.”
So here is how Warren Buffett plays it safe at a Senate Hearing:
“Mr. Chairman, I would like to start by apologizing. The nation has a right to expect its rules and laws to be obeyed. And at Salomon, these were broken…I told our employees: lose money for the firm, and I will be understanding; lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless.”
Buffett’s candor about Salomon’s misdeeds gave everyone on the Senate Committee great comfort he would do a better job running the show than regulators. They left him alone (after imposing a quarter billion dollar fine, of course) and he did — he staunched the bleeding and went on to successfully sell Salomon to Citibank.
6) Liars lie
When someone does you wrong, get loud.
Buffett related a story to me about the time he abstained from a vote on the Coca-Cola executive compensation plan.
But when New York Times reporter, Joe Nocera, was looking for a hook for his otherwise unremarkable story, his fact-checking was sloppy and he called Buffett’s decision ‘cowardly and hypocritical’.
Buffett doesn’t just clip his positive press, he groans when the story is inaccurate. One thing that makes him such a formidable subject for a reporter, Buffett is never uncertain about the facts.
Buffett got in touch with Nocera and brought the errors to his attention only the NY Times columnist acted like it was much ado about nothing.
The dustup eventually made its way to the ombudsman at the NY Times, aka Public Editor, who wrote a column in support of Buffett:
“…Some mistakes are bigger than others, and this was the case in two related columns by Joe Nocera…who made some serious factual errors. (Then) I asked Nocera if he planned to write anything about the errors” and Nocera, channeling Louis IV, offered: “I don’t really see how I would have much to add.”
So the Public Editor turned the tables and asked Buffett for his comment. He wrote back: “The (Nocera) column is based on an incorrect fact — one that could easily have been checked, and wasn’t.”
This isn’t a morality tale about an errant journalist but a caution that the woods are filled with strange actors carrying keyboards. When you run into one, call it out. Journalists aren’t foolproof or firing proof. They make huge mistakes like the rest of us.
7) Leaders teach (not preach)
Your press relies on your value to the press.
At Forbes, where I was publisher, a reporter might do a company story every two to three years or so. So if you are managing your image purely based on getting your company in the news, at most you get their attention one day out of 1000.
But if you can act like Buffett does, as a source sharing insights and industry gossip, you can be on the radar every day in between. Who gets the better story when the time comes?
With the best reporters, Buffett is always available. But it’s a privilege the journalist has to earn, which he repays when they make the effort:
“If a reporter does the right kind of a job, I’m a source, and the reason I am is because I admire their work. The others get no place with me.”
Henry Ford II used to say, “never explain, never complain” and the modern version of that is: go dark. As Buffett says, and CEOs would do well to follow, he hands out his access according to the level of professionalism:
“It’s very important to — if you want to become a great journalist, to behave like one as you go along, and then all the other pieces will fall into place. There are so many good stories that haven’t been written yet, and a few of them which I know. “
8) The hard thing about hard work
It’s not uncommon to hear talk about how many people know so little about business. I asked Buffett if it frustrated him? He replied it was a fact of life, but it can cause the public to underestimate the challenges.
“Mickey Mantle once told me, ‘it’s amazing how easy this game looks from the bleachers.’”
The fact is, the public isn’t paid to know about your business, nor are journalists. They are paid to know what their readers want to see. Your business is just a sideline, a practical hobby, at best.
Buffett went on to say,
“It’s a little hard for journalists to be planted in boardrooms around the country, but I do think that business journalists have to understand accounting and business practices.”
There is a small but profitable activity for a CEO willing to tutor the world including the media in the art of the deal, especially on background. The favor will pay itself back a thousandfold.
9) Win the story but don’t lose the headline
Okay. You’ve done your homework, taken the reporter’s interview and hit it out of the park, but you wake up to see a headline which makes you look like someone who engages in animal cruelty.
Buffett understands reporters don’t write headlines. That job goes to the headline writer with a good reason. Her job is to attract eyeballs and overhype. So I asked, how do you deal with trashy headlines?
“I tell reporters, ‘You may not write the headline, but I want you to be able to tell me after this story runs that you were okay with the headline because ten times as many people are going to carry it around in their mind. If they feel the headline misrepresents their story, the reporter has an obligation to complain to the editor.”
Buffett controls the narrative, right down to the headline. Of course he does.