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October 9, 2009 at 5:40 PM

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The un-spokesmen

Posted by Jonathan Martin

Joe Mallahan likes to talk about his work at T-Mobile. His co-workers like him, judging by their contributions to his campaign.

But getting T-Mobile to talk about Mallahan is like pulling teeth. In response to a request to talk with CEO Robert Dotson and other executives this week, I got an email back from the PR firm Waggener Edstrom Worldwide that ended with a strange request.

Hi Jonathan,

Thank you for your phone call this afternoon and your patience while I looked into your request. While we won't be able to provide you with an interview we are able to provide the following statement.


"We're pleased that T-Mobile employees are engaged in public service and are participants in the democratic process. We respect Joe's efforts to run for public office; he's currently taking a leave of absence from the company during his campaign. Beyond that T-Mobile has no further comment."


Please note that if you plan to use this statement in your piece, I am not a T-Mobile spokesperson and to use my name would be inaccurate. If you are required to include attribution please do so to a "T-Mobile Spokesperson". Thank you and have a great weekend!

Best,

Danielle

To be clear, the statement is from a "T-Mobile spokesperson," but the spokesperson has no name, and saying that the spokesperson does have a name would be "inaccurate."

This sort of logic is apparently contagious. Starbucks employed the same faceless spokesman for a story that co-worker Craig Welch reported. When he asked Starbucks what the company was dong to prepare its Kent facility for potential flooding, the following was sent:

Hi Craig,

Thanks again for contacting Starbucks. While I'm not a company spokesperson and should not be quoted, you may use the statement below as background information and attribute directly to a Starbucks spokesperson


The email was signed

Best,
Michael
Starbucks Media Relations

When Craig asked if he was a contractor, Michael sent:

Yes, I am a member of the Starbucks Media Relations team through Edelman - Starbucks PR agency.

John Stauber, author of "Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry," said farming out media inquiries to external PR firms is a strategy to "distance" the company from uncomfortable questions.

"For a company, it's cheap. They can toss queries into a pile. They get to manage the press without being accountable within the story, and doing it in a way that if they are quoted, they can raise a fuss with your editors," said Stauber.

PR folks know that journalists usually find written statements far less helpful than interviews. Add the "I'm not a spokesperson" line and the responses are worthless.

"One of the best ways to manage the media is avoid coverage," said Stauber. "They want to avoid any mention of their company name unless it's in the best possible light."

Back to Mallahan, his campaign knows that T-Mobile being unavailable to answer questions about his work leaves unanswered questions. At the request of the Seattle Times, he asked several current and former T-Mobile employees to comment for a story appearing in this Sunday's paper. Some did, but no one who supervised Mallahan answered our calls.

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