Ali Velshi is a familiar face to anxious consumers who have watched their investments closely for the past year. CNN's chief business correspondent spoke with Frank Washkuch about 2009's biggest financial stories.
PRWeek: How would you describe your daily responsibilities at CNN?
Ali Velshi: Well, I think it falls into certain stages. This is not chronological, but…we have to determine what is going on in the world of business and money, and then confirm all of it. We spend a lot of our time making sure information is accurate, because we do a lot more than what you see on TV, as you know. We blog and podcast and have radio, and affiliates, and a wire service. So we have to know what's going on regardless of whether it goes on TV. So that's stage one – what's happening? And do we have accurate data?
Number two - I'm involved in making determinations as to what sort of coverage we put on TV. Of everything that's going on out there, of everything that we've been able to confirm and understand, what then is relevant to the network? Because I'm part of a team that constructs the guidance for the shows and for the producers to use.
And part three is the delivery of that information, because certainly for prime time or for the radio or for podcasts or for blogs or for my own show on the weekends, I have many ways and outlets to disseminate the information. And so those are the three components of what I do. Every day is a little bit different though.
PRWeek: You motioned the different outlets. How do you balance what you want to cover on the specific shows? Is it possible to tailor it specifically for the different shows?
Velshi: Yes, absolutely, and we know, for instance, of all the different things I might do during the day - for instance I might tape the weekend show, I might write my weekend show, I might record a podcast or do a blog or maybe more than one blog and then I'll appear on various shows during the day - each one of those has its own distinct audience. The content of those stories can be different for each of those…There are stories I cover on the podcasts that might be lighter or cheekier than what I do at 8 or 10 pm on TV. If we're doing American Morning, that's a different audience again. And we can tailor the story and we can make content decisions. There are some stories that I might get pitched on that are fantastic for a podcast or for a blog, but they don't make sense for TV.
PRWeek: Can you give me an example of one of those? A great fit for a podcast or a blog but not for TV?
Velshi: I'm going to go backwards and give you one that fits everywhere, and that is a blog that I wrote last Thursday about one of the economists that we follow very closely saying that this recession is going to end in 2009 or maybe as early as this summer. And that one, while I repurposed it and the delivery was different, it was for primetime, and it was in a podcast and it was on diff blogs and it was on our consumer tips Web site. It has broad appeal, and we can put in anywhere. And the podcast itself, for instance, is my take on things. So it might have been what I did a couple of weeks ago, United Airlines was doing this policy where people who were too large would have to pay extra to get onto a flight. It doesn't meet the bar of what I might do on TV most days because we have a limited amount of real estate, but it made a great podcast. Consumer affairs type of things I put on the blogs, because that's the sort of audience we're going to get. So if I come across a customer service problem, I'll write about it on the blogs. If I want to solicit responses to things, I'll write about them on the blogs.
PRWeek: With the recession, it seems everyone is talking about the economy. What stories do you expect to cover the most in the coming months?
Velshi: I think it's jobs and houses. Ultimately of all the business stories out there, the three that matter to people are their homes, their incomes, or their savings. The savings are reflected usually by the market. But those are the stories we come back to. There may be, on a day-to-day basis, different questions, different specific questions. But those are the things we come back to because those are the things that matter to people.
PRWeek: Are any other stories shaping up to be the big financial stories of 2009?
Velshi: Well, I think coverage of the response will be very big; the recovery will be very big. When [the economy] starts to recover, how we cover that and what do we do that's of use to people? Can we switch to programming so that it is of utility and helps people get out of the mess we're in? Specifically, I think we're going to have to look at the corporate real estate issue that is coming to the forefront, in that the housing bubble we have seen could actually repeat itself in a corporate real estate bubble, and we don't talk about that all that much, and I think we're going to talk about it more. We certainly have talked about it, but it's not part of mainstream dialogue. And credit cards, that's another story we're going to have to deal with a great deal. Anything to do with the stimulus will continue to be of great importance to our audience.
PRWeek: With the recession taking up so much time, do you find that there are financial stories that you're not getting to cover?
Velshi: What I find very interesting is how people do well in this kind of economy. Businesses that are starting, the struggles of small businesses, the creative jobs people are getting or how they retrain. Those aren't as newsy as big news events as ‘this many unemployed' or ‘earnings missed expectations.' And by the time we get to the point where we can cover those, it sometimes feels that they've been going on for a little while. And I'd love to get in on the early stages of those sorts of issues, but while we still have a crisis to cover it's difficult to do that.
PRWeek: Is there one common angle to financial stories?
Velshi: No, I really feel very strongly that that's not the case. I think we can fall into the trap of looking through every story though a particular prism. Some things just matter because they do, and they wont relate to you. And so, if one uses that as a filter, there are many stories that won't be told until I can relate them to you. The credit crisis didn't mean anything to anybody until they couldn't get a loan, or so they thought, and ultimately that is what has resulted in so many jobs being lost - because companies couldn't raise money – and we have to be careful to not narrow the focus so that it only has a direct relationship to the viewer or consumer.
PRWeek: So there is not one must-have element?
Velshi: Absolutely not. The one is that is has to be a story…I like the viewer to be able to take some action on it. What does that mean? It could mean that you can make money or save money or it could prevent you from losing money. It could mean that it's interesting and it can cause you to make other decisions because it completes your field of information about what's going on out there. Some things are just trends, for instance. Some things are interesting because when you're looking for a job, it's good information to know to talk about. So I don't see there being one thing. If all else fails, sometimes a story is just interesting because it's interesting.
PRWeek: Since the beginning of the financial crisis, there's been a lot of criticism of the financial media – you got the Jon Stewart treatment – but do you think that the criticism of the financial media is justified?
Velshi: The good thing about me is that I haven't faced Jon Stewart's criticism for doing anything wrong. He made fun of me – what did he call me? The hairless prophet of doom? But there's a general criticism out there that the mainstream media's business coverage favors the investor class or favors Wall Street. I don't think there's any evidence of that at CNN, that we've been that way at all. I know we don't. Our job isn't to favor anyone; we try to add context. So what I've been focused on the for the past year is, I've really been focused on explaining stories, and breaking them down and trying to add context for our viewers, and then leaving the taking of positions to other people.
That said, I think some of the criticism of the media has been fair, in general. I think this has been a crash course for a lot of people, even those of us who are veterans. There are things that have happened in the past year that have not happened in our lifetimes. We've learned as we went along in a lot of cases, and I think well be better for it. I think the criticism is in some cases sound, and the industry is going to have to be better about covering things we don't understand and figuring out things about the financial system that we thought we may not have ever needed to know.
PRWeek: What's your interaction like with PR pros?
Velshi: In sheer quantity, it wouldn't be half and half; it's mostly not great, but I don't know if quantity is the right way to measure this in terms of pitches, because those that are great are really great. And [the better pitchers] manage to understand some of the things I've told you about, that it is not a one-size-fits-all environment. So the creativity in figuring out why one pitch or guest makes sense is really helpful to me. And I think there are a lot of people who don't have it right, and I am not sure why I haven't seen more evolution on that. On a day-by-day basis, I get pitched more in ways that don't make sense, and I get pitches that don't follow the tone of what's going on. I understand that it's hard to customize a pitch for absolutely everyone. But I kind of feel like that when you're fixing it in, someone should take a little bit of time to customize it. I think it's probably a trend with everything in the business, the pitches that work well are the ones that are customized, and the those that don't work well are the ones that aren't customized. And the PR people that I work with the best are the ones who don't pitch me things that just aren't going to make it. But they're prepared to bend my mind on things that would make sense.
Ultimately, the things that do work out the best for me are the relationships that are built with PR pros or their clients, and who have taken some time to build those relationships or introduce their clients as they come through town. And I have frequent meetings with people throughout the week just to get to know them and talk on background or off the record about their companies. And in my job, that is actually more useful to talk a little on background with people in the world of business who know what's going on.