Veteran business and tech reporter David Lazarus, who has written for Fortune, Wired, and other magazines, now pens a thrice-weekly investigative column on consumer issues for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Veteran business and tech reporter David Lazarus, who has written for Fortune, Wired, and other magazines, now pens a thrice-weekly investigative column on consumer issues for the San Francisco Chronicle. He spoke to PRWeek about dealing with angry companies and the future of customer service.
PRWeek: Do many companies get upset with your columns?
David Lazarus: That's fair to say.
PRWeek: Does that affect you as a writer?
Lazarus: It's tricky because my column has a consumer focus. It's very much a "stick up for the little guy" kind of thing. And it's very easy for companies to dismiss that sort of thing as being anti-business, which is the criticism I hear most often. I see it more as being pro-accountability. It's not that I'm against companies making money or doing whatever they have to do to be competitive. What I am in favor of is when they implement practices that directly affect their customers, they should be able to both explain those practices and defend them instead of hiding behind some shield of saying 'Oh this is proprietary, we can't talk about it,' or 'Oh, don't worry your pretty head, this is just a technical thing.' No! I'd like to think that I'm the voice of their customers in many cases, and the questions that I bring to them are questions that thousands, if not millions, of people are also asking, but because consumers in America today have been so disenfranchised from the corporate process, they have no voice any more. And I'd like to think that in a modest way, I can be their voice.
PRWeek: Do any particular companies that you cover strike you as having very good PR?
Lazarus: A good example of that would be Schwab. When I first started running some critical things about Schwab and some of the changes they were making - changes that were having a negative impact according to many customers - the company's first reaction was to be indignant and to wonder, "Boy, why are you being so rough with us?"
At a certain point, Schwab started being more responsive to my questions. Then, Charles Schwab himself contacted me to say, "I think we need to get together and have a chat." From that point on, it's not like I went any easier on the company, but there was a much more constructive interaction.
Another company that almost identically responded was our local utility, PG&E. And I was pretty rough with them during the energy crisis. They went into bankruptcy; they were the largest utility bankruptcy in American history. And I had a lot of sources within the utility -- I had a lot of inside information about them that was seeing the light of print -- and they didn't like me one bit.
But when their new CEO took over, a man named Peter Darby who used to be the CFO, one of the first things he did was say 'Why don't we go out and have lunch together?' And we talked; it was off the record. We had a nice chat. And we did it on the record, and I was fairly aggressive in my questioning of him. And since then we've had another lunch together. I haven't gone any easier on PG&E, but I would say that by opening up in that way and increasing my accessibility to the higher levels of the utility as opposed to just the flacks, who I normally deal with with some companies, I have a better insight and awareness of where these guys are coming from, and that can only benefit them.
PRWeek: So what advice would you give to PR people who are dealing with a columnist who is savaging their company?
Lazarus: It's all about transparency. The first thing to understand is that it's not personal, it's business. And second of all, that when a journalist, and especially someone in my position who does a lot of investigative reporting, comes knocking at the door, without an agenda, but with some very serious questions, the best thing to do, if you can't answer those questions, is not to stonewall, but to find someone who can answer the questions.
PRWeek: What do you think about the future of the newspaper business?
Lazarus: These are tricky times for newspapers. I'm optimistic over the long haul that there will always be an appetite for news and information in this country. Clearly that's the case. And so the shakeout that we're seeing in the newspaper business right now doesn't so much center on the content of the paper as the delivery medium. Are we going to get it on dead trees in the future, or is it all going to come electronically, or what? Those are very serious questions, and they very clearly affect our business model. And so a shakeout in the business is underway already, obviously, from the number of layoffs we've seen. And it's going to continue for quite some time as newspapers and magazines feel their way through the digital future. But that's not to say that there won't be a market for well-reported, well-written, well-edited and well-presented information. And let's face it, the Internet doesn't always rise to those standards, and blogs certainly do not rise to all those standards. So at the end of the day, you really do need professional information-gatherers to be doing their job.
I would think that we might be headed toward something like you saw in the Spielberg film, where you saw the guy open an electronic newspaper and the page is changing right in front of his eyes. That wouldn't surprise me. I think that the things that we see now in terms of Blackberries and Treos and cell phones that can do amazing things, and iPods, those all point the way not towards the future of newspapers, but towards the future of delivery of digital content. And so it's all going to be about a user-friendly mechanism, a gadget of some sort, that's going to do it. Clearly you're not going to read your newspaper on an iPod. On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if there was something approximating the size of a tabloid newspaper, and maybe even approximating pages, although they wouldn't be made of paper, that would satisfy both camps: the need for up-to-the-second information, and also the very pleasurable way of scanning a whole page with your eyes, which is a nice way to absorb information.
PRWeek: Do you have any predictions for 2006 for your beat?
Lazarus: We're probably going to see a continuing disenfranchisement of consumers from large companies, and a growing sense of frustration in the marketplace that companies are sacrificing customer service at the altar of greater profitability. And at some point, you're going to reach a tipping point.
PRWeek: What happens after the tipping point?
Lazarus: I think you'll start to see a scaling back. In addition, there will be more awareness that the notion of bigger is better, which might work for shareholders, doesn't work for customers. And you're going to see a renewed focus at some point on giving customers attention. A good inclination of that is we're already seeing a number of companies advertising that when you call customer service you'll get a real person. Or, Dell Computer stepping up and saying 'When you call us these days, you won't go to India.' Clearly, a lot of companies are hearing that customers do not want to be treated in certain ways. And slowly but surely, I think the big ones will be responsive to that.
Name: David Lazarus
Outlet: San Francisco Chronicle
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Web site: www.sfchronicle.com