Buffett’s astoundingly successful public image is one part reality and one part science
The ‘sage of Omaha’ was staring at me patiently as I posed the first question, “You’re richer than Midas yet everyone thinks you’re the champ?”
He started off with a George Burns joke and during the course of our interview for my YouTube program, Iconic Voices, Buffett confessed his secret for getting the royal treatment:
“I spend more time talking to journalists than perhaps any CEO in the country.”
Buffett builds political capital thoughtfully, for the day he may need it, but as he also noted, he likes journalists. That’s because he likes people who think and who make him think.
Why does the second or third richest person in the world care so much about what journalists’ think? It’s not publicity or selfie generation mentality, you can be sure. It is simply, as his partner Charlie Munger noted, “our core competency is knowing we don’t know the future.”
In our interview, I was able to take away 10 brilliant but simple rules to follow that have helped Buffett create the image we all recognize today — the Oracle of Omaha, known for sagacity, humor, and most of all, astounding credibility.
Buffett’s talent for coming across as one part favorite uncle and one part poker champ may not be transferable, and following his rules isn’t guaranteed to make you as rich, but they will undoubtedly help you tell a better story.
1) Be ready for prime time at any time
The recent cases of United Airlines or previously, Wells Fargo or BP’s oils spill come to mind. The talented CEOs who spoke out prematurely and with one foot in their mouth just weren’t camera ready. It wasn’t lack of staff coaching or time to think. They were walking into combat unskilled and unarmed. It didn’t matter even if the strategy was sound (which it wasn’t, either).
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 set out to teach himself and make sure his insecurity about public speaking was a thing of the past:
“I was terrified of speaking in public and avoided taking any classes in college that required it. So I finally 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 if you also happen to be the CEO, no one in the company is going to say you need help, trust me. In fact, you’ll get a lot of, “you were great, boss” comments that only delude you into thinking you are camera ready. You would benefit, as Buffett did, from some professional coaching on how you are coming across — or not.
Before I interview people for my YouTube series, Iconic Voices, I always run the questions past my harshest (and loveliest) critic, my wife. That’s when I realize how bad I can really be and we work together to create a more polished version, which occasionally even amazes me.
Worth noting as well, you live 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 ad hoc and spontaneously is now a core competency.
2) You aren’t too big to fail (take the reporter’s call)
Your day is crammed. You see an email from a reporter and your first reaction is “I’ll get back to you,” and forward it to the PR department. While you dither, the reporter calls your competitor and they give him the exclusive.
Warren Buffett knows the narrative begins when you don’t answer the call. He told me he always takes the call but then he trusts his instincts and doesn’t waste any time if it’s pointless. It’s actually quicker than dodging the call:
“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 reporter in two minutes than miss a serious opportunity that can have a lasting effect.
3) With journalists, remember, their hypothesis is often wrong but never in doubt
Buffett revealed one of the most profound insights anyone has ever told me about the media (just fyi, I was publisher of Forbes Magazine for 20 years):
“The biggest sin in journalism is that a journalist has to start with a working hypothesis but they don’t always give that up when the facts prove it’s incorrect or misleading.”
His point is that once a journalist gets a hot lead they poke around with a few reliable sources that are likely to be confirmatory, like your competitors or plaintiff attorneys suing you or disgruntled employees. With all that confirmation making them look smart, it’s can be hard for a journalist to back down.
Here’s the problem. Journalist sources must be quotable and on the record, always available for deadlines. Now ask yourself, why would someone of that caliber be so generous with their time? Because they have an ax to grind or a bank account to fill.
Which explains why the best journalist sources are often conflicted, a fact the journalist knows but loathes to admit. The cast of rogues can also include anti-business activist groups and government 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.”
The Buffett lesson is simple. You don’t want to hear the slime from the journalist, but better you know where he or she is coming from then read about it in someone’s Facebook feed that afternoon.
So next time a reporter calls, ask yourself, do you know their bias? Take the time to do some question asking yourself and see what their angle is. Their questions are your answers if you get my drift. Also, remember to check your hubris because a smart journalist will make soothing sounds to catch you off guard, but it doesn’t mean they actually like you.
Even if the reporter is reluctant to offer any feedback, you’ll know by the evasions and hesitations what is going down. My former editor, the late Jim Michaels, used to tell me: “you have no idea what will come out of a CEO’s mouth until you put a microphone in front of it.”
4) Be humble like mom and dad told you
If you want a good story, it helps to build some political capital.
As always, Buffett has a remedy. He undersells.
When CNBC’s Becky Quick calls, she knows from experience when Buffett says something is good, it’s probably great. So she adds a courtesy inflation factor — conversely a braggart CEO claiming he is about to change the world gets a friendly discount.
When Buffett stumbled with an airline investment a few years back, 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 aeroholic.’ And then they talk me down.”
It’s more than funny. It’s brilliant. Should he ever buy an airline again (after making his 800# call) the reporter will assume it’s a game changer and he gets a free pass rather than a kick in the tail fin.
5) If everyone is talking virtue, start talking vice
Most power players shy away from admitting error because the general counsel is whispering “liability.” Don’t mention that to the former CEOs of BP or VW. They learned the hard way you can’t lawyer your way out of a crisis due to social media and activist groups or media savvy regulators.
Buffett told me about his philosophy of 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. When trouble hits, my rule is: 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 that (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) When they serve you sour grapes, whine
Buffett related a story to me about the time he abstained from a vote on the Coca-Cola executive compensation plan. He disagreed with the plan’s over-generous terms, and as a shareholder he abstained, knowing that this would carry a louder message than anything else he could do.
But when New York Times reporter, Joe Nocera, was looking for a hook for an otherwise unremarkable story, his fact checking was sloppy and he called Buffett’s decision ‘cowardly and hypocritical’. He never called to question Buffett, simply took the abstention literally and built an erroneous story around it.
Buffett doesn’t just pay attention to his positive press, he groans when the story is inaccurate. One thing that makes him such a formidable subject for a reporter, Buffett has all the facts.
So 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 published a column in the New York Times 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 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.
“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 these days. When you run into one, call it out. A journalist isn’t fireproof or firing proof.
7) You are an annual subject but a daily source
At Forbes, for example, a reporter might do a story on a particular company every two to three years. So if you are managing your journalist relationship purely based on getting your company covered, at most you get their attention one day out of 1000.
But if you can act as a source sharing insights and industry gossip you can be on the radar every day. So who gets the better story when the time comes? Chatting with reporters makes them smarter and they return the favor by raising your profile. First, you’re a source, then a friend, and then a visionary.
With the best reporters, Buffett is always available as a source. 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.”
8) The dark side is always an option
Henry Ford II used to say, “never explain, never complain” and the modern version of that is: go dark when the zeitgeist isn’t favorable.
So a bungle in the media jungle like Nocera’s above is costly to journalist’s reputation. 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. “
Having Warren Buffett as a source can be a career-making move, as Andrew Ross Sorkin or Becky Quick can confirm. So treat access to your special intelligence as a coveted prize for a journalist. You’re doing them a favor, not the other way around.
9) If you want smarter journalists, then make them so.
It’s not uncommon to hear how journalists know so little about your business.
I asked Buffett if it frustrated him? He replied it was a fact of life, but it can cause journalists to underestimate the challenges and can affect their reporting, especially on complex or polarizing topics. Buffett said:
“Mickey Mantle once told me, ‘it’s amazing how easy this game is once you get up in the press box.”
The fact is, journalists aren’t paid to be experts on your business, they’re paid to know what their readers want to see and to be able to get a good story out of you. Period.
Your business is just a sideline for a journalist, 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 earnest reporter in the art of the deal and business best practices, especially as background during a slow news period. You need to start the training with the right reporters, take them under your wing before they need you or you need them. Over time, you’ll see how fast a study they are and the favor will pay itself back a thousandfold.
10) You can win the story but lose the headline
Okay. You’ve spoken to the reporter, done your homework, the story is done. You sit back and relax. After all, you’ve followed Buffett’s rules 1–9, right?
Then the story appears and it’s not bad except for the headline which makes you look like a someone who trips over themselves while engaged in animal cruelty. What happened?
Buffett understands reporters don’t write headlines. That job goes to the headline writer. Her job is to attract eyeballs and overhype is standard procedure. These days in the ‘share zone’ where people don’t actually read articles but simply assume headlines and then share them, this is dangerous to ignore.
So I asked, how do you deal with trashy headlines?
“When they are talking to me for a story, 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 the reporter feels the headline misrepresents their story, they have an obligation to complain to the editor (and try to change it before it comes out).”
Buffett controls the narrative, right down to the headline.
Of course, he does.
You can find Warren Buffett and my others interviews on www.IconicVoices.TV
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Thunderbird School of Global Management or Arizona State University as a whole.