Theranos highlights golden rule of media relations

The media’s volatile relationship with failed blood test maker Theranos reminds us that journalists are trained to be suspicious of companies whose representatives are evasive, or which heavily restrict access.

CEO Elizabeth Holmes’ extraordinary relationship with the media started with a compelling vision of a transformative health treatment. It wrapped in dual tensions of a disrupter threatening cosy market practices plus the rare example of a successful woman leader taking on the men in Silicon Valley. Comparisons with Steve Jobs added to her celebrity status. 

But over time evidence to back up the hype did not materialise, something reporters honed in on. Fortune, in a June 2014 article, noted “Precisely how Theranos accomplishes all these amazing feats is a trade secret.” The only detail the magazine elicited from Holmes was its advances related to ‘optimizing the chemistry’ and ‘leveraging software’. As someone who reported on the dot com boom and bust the combination of hyperbole backed by vague statements is familiar.

Then there was the lack of wider access for the media beyond controlled interviews by Holmes. reported in October 2015 on a media event at Theranos’ head quarters: “In July… journalists who had been waiting for more than an hour were abruptly escorted out after a mere 10 minutes of remarks.”

Reporters don’t highlight moments like this for the sake of it – but because they feel something is wrong about evasion or limitation of access. It starts conversations in news rooms that lead to more probing questions and, ultimately, damaging articles of the type that the Wall Street Journal wrote in 2015 which burst Theranos’ bubble. 

Too many executives still believe that they can take a ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’ approach with journalists – shutting up shop when the going gets tough. That’s a mistake. Offering access and responding to sceptical questions will always be the surest way to deal with media curiosity.