Interview with Blackstone’s Peter Rose
by Liz Hester
Peter Rose, head of public affairs for private-equity firm The Blackstone Group LP, started his role in 2007 after 20 years at Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
Rose was tapped in 1996 to start Goldman’s public relations office after serving as a political analyst and lobbyist in their DC office. He moved to Asia in 1998 to set up a communications function there and returned to New York in 2003 to head media relations in the Americas.
He sat down with Talking Biz News at his 43rd floor office on Park Avenue to talk about his career, business journalism and how the industry has changed. What follows is an edited transcript.
What’s your favorite part about your job?
Rose: What I like the most is being at the intersection of a technical and complex industry and a broader audience who needs to understand it. The financial industry in general has suffered severe reputational damage post the financial crisis. It’s probably in a state of very low repute now, but on the other hand, it’s critical for economic recovery. You need to allocate capital and finance to have a functioning economy, so having people understand that becomes critical.
How do you approach your job?
PR: In my job, 99.99 percent of what I’m doing involves communications of shades of grey. We rarely deal with something that’s totally wrong or screwed up. Most importantly, I’m trying to have a dialogue with the reporter about what’s going on. Take for example our recent investment in Knight Capital. The conversation is mostly about why we did it, what types of returns, how the deal happened – questions like that. We have a set of facts so the reporter can write an explanation of that. We’re not trying to spin, conceal or promote – just get the facts out. The reporter will draw his or her own conclusions from those facts.
What are some traits of the best business reporters?
PR: What the best reporters do is they are very frank about what they’re hearing and the conclusions they’re drawing. For example, it’s much easier to work with a reporter when they come to you and say, “I hear Blackstone overpaid for X deal or that the investment is not looking good.” I can work with that. We can talk about how we hold our investments for an average of seven years or any number of other points.
What’s difficult is a reporter who holds his or her cards close to the chest. You have to remember that I have no power to change even a comma in someone’s copy. I only have the dialogue where you’re telling me what you’re thinking. What can I do? Call an editor?
How do you get reporters to reveal their thoughts?
PR: Part of it is your relationship with the reporter. They have to trust you not to front-run their story or share it with another organization. That, by the way, is a very short-term strategy. It’s a long-term relationship and there’s an element of trust there that’s critical. Sometimes I can persuade a reporter, other times not. But if you have a dialogue and your point of view is honestly related in the story, then there’s nothing to complain about.
What’s part of the job that’s important, but people don’t generally see or know about?
PR: My other role is with our senior people. I’m responsible for showing them that the Blackstone point of view was related and in the story. Generally, if there’s a story we disagree with, it’s because the reporter came to a different conclusion than ours. I’m also responsible for acting as an advocate for journalists within the firm.
At Blackstone, our senior people get it; they’re involved with the media and understand it’s important. We host press dinners where key reporters who cover us come and have off-the-record discussions. Most of the reporters who cover us know they can always get Steve or Tony (Co-Founder and CEO Steve Schwarzman and Chief Operating Officer Tony James) and they’ll make time for interviews because it’s important.
What are some of the ways the financial media industry has changed?
PR: First, the Internet and second, the 24-hour news cycle are two huge changes. In 1996, papers actually had deadlines. Typically, they’d do their reporting in the morning, writing in the afternoon and about 5 p.m. you’d get the fact-checking calls. Then about 6:45 p.m. it was done. Occasionally, stories would break late and then you’d see them spread through different sections. It was a slower pace.
Now, take for example Blackstone earnings, the press release goes out at 8:30 a.m. there’s a lot of pressure to get the first version up on the web. It’s not just the wire services, but newspapers and bloggers working quickly. One of the advantages of this is that you can see the stories faster. You can have a dialogue with the reporter and get the facts correct. With the accelerated pace of news, people are consuming it in different ways. This is also a great opportunity because in essence you can become your own media. With blogs, Tweets, Facebook, YouTube, you become a mini-broadcaster and can reach you’re core audience without intermediaries.
Another way it’s changed is the rise of what I call “independent authorities.” It used to be that in financial services, the Wall Street Journal dove the agenda with the Financial Times on the international side and the New York Times for general news. Now, besides the news alerts from Bloomberg, Dow, Reuters that people get on a 24-hour basis, there are also independent bloggers. People like Felix Salmon at Reuters, Naked Capitalism and Ben White who writes Politico’s Morning Money column. These people are shaping the way we think and the financial services industry.
What’s a mistake you’ve made?
PR: Getting an inaccurate fact and then passing it on to a reporter. For example there was a story in Asia and I confirmed someone had left the firm who was actually still there. I had to call the reporter and retract my on-the-record confirmation. This taught me that you have to always dig down. If there are rumors, there is always a cause. If it seems it’s all smoke, there’s likely a little fire there and you need to get to the bottom of it.