Off The Record, On The QT and Very Hush-Hush

Off The Record, On The QT and Very Hush-Hush

Is the IT press-IT department relationship under unforeseen duress? These days ‘clam up for comment' is on the rise as IT executives put a new twist on the old axiom ‘if you can't say something good, then say nothing at all'

On the face of it, the front page Computerworld story hardly concerned issues of corporate life and death. Its theme was simply the way IT professionals were abandoning baseball caps and bean bag chairs in the workforce in the post-dotcom era.

Yet despite approaching numbers of IT professionals for comment, Computerworld journalist Lauren Thomsen-Moore eventually was able to quote just two - an applications architect for a government department and an IT manager from a national payment services company - in support of her story. And disturbingly from any journalist's point of view, both insisted on securing guarantees their identities would be protected before agreeing to speak.

"It wasn't a huge issue for them. They just preferred to be anonymous because they didn't want their comments to be seen as the views of their company," Thomsen-Moore says.

Fair enough, you might say. But a few weeks before that all four front page stories in Computerworld - each on more pressing issues than how IT professionals dress - started off quoting a CIO who wished to remain anonymous. It seems acting like Deep Throat can rapidly become habit-forming - and the habit if continued could end up hurting readers, writers and publishers alike.

Hello, intimidation. Good-bye, free speech. Journalists agree the anxiety many an IT manager feels about their future career prospects is having a dampening effect, making it harder for many publications to act as the forums for the exchange of ideas and information about best practices. "It seems the good ol' IT manager is so concerned about his career these days he is paranoid about every comment because he has his eye on the CIO title," says Computerworld news editor Sandra Rossi. "They also claim Â'strategy' or budget figures or spending questions [as reasons not to speak on the record]."

It does not happen quite so much here at CIO, but IDG sister publications, especially news-oriented ones, report an increasing trend for those they seek to interview to demand anonymity before they will comment. It is a trend that dismays and concerns CIO editor and IDG Enterprise Division vice president Linda Kennedy. "I'm seeing way too many stories for my taste where IT people are Â'quoted' anonymously. I just don't understand why there's an increasingly significant contingent of people who are unwilling to go on the record," Kennedy says.

"Certainly, I can understand why a person doesn't want to go on the record and therefore identify their company if it's regarding security - that's the equivalent of waving a red flag at hackers. I can see why someone's reluctant if they feel an implementation gives their organisation a competitive edge. I can also understand why they can't talk if their company is going public. But I do wonder what the hell is happening out there: why suddenly IT people - and some CIOs - are so afraid to speak out."

The answer is far from clear. Shuna Boyd of Shuna Boyd Public Relations, a long-time veteran of IT public relations, believes people's jobs are not as secure as they used to be, making some afraid to go out on a limb. "I think people are very frightened about their jobs nowadays," Boyd says. "I think I read somewhere that in IT in particular the CEOs are younger and they have their job for a shorter amount of time than any other industry. I presume it goes on throughout senior roles."

Yet Derek Evans, managing partner for PR firm Gotley Nix Evans, who has been in the game even longer than Boyd, disagrees that local IT executives are becoming more fearful about talking to the media. Even when executives prefer not to speak, Evans does not think it is because of any tightening of the rules by overseas head offices. In fact, he says he has seen a general loosening of those rules over recent years.

"I find experienced managers both understand the value of the media and know which journalists they want to cultivate and why," Evans says. "But even seasoned managers tend to shy away from media engagement when they're having a tough time. Nobody enjoys having to admit that things could be better. Invariably, good managers are also egotists and they'll talk soon enough when it might make them and their companies look good."

Evans says there are managers who simply don't understand the way the media works and speculates these may be the fearful ones. He says they typically have less experience than their peers, have not been media trained or do not have a qualified PR agency to help them out.

Another reason for silence of course, as Boyd points out, is that public companies in particular have very strong rules about who is allowed to talk to the media. She suspects many people have been burnt by speaking to the media without gaining clearance from corporate affairs.

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