Sunday, December 27, 2009

Ethics Breach: Harvard B-School Prof Takes 3M Junket, Then Writes Wet-Kiss Column About 3M For NYT's Sunday Business Section.

Remember that NYT rule that recently cost freelance contributor Mike Albo his job, the one about not accepting free trips from current and potential news sources?

Well, it got broken again today, this time by a Harvard Business School professor who writes a regular freelance NYT column. At least this time, the company that paid for the free trip got its money's worth -- in the form of a wet kiss column from the recipient in today's NYT Sunday business section.

In her "Prototype" column today, Prof. Mary Tripsas, a business-management expert and member of the Harvard Business School faculty, writes about customer innovation -- and uses as her lead, and main example, the customer innovation center at the 3M Corporation's headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Most of her column focuses on 3M, which she describes as at the "forefront of a movement" that involves customers in the innovation process. After several paragraphs of worshipful description of the place and interviews with the executive in charge, Prof. Tripsas concludes: "[The center] has helped 3M to establish productive, long-term customer relationships."

What Prof. Tripas doesn't mention is that on November 12, she and several other innovation researchers from around the country flew to St. Paul for a day-long briefing on the center, their travel and accommodations provided by the company -- in direct violation of NYT rules.

Those rules state:

Specifically, in connection with their work for us, freelancers will not accept free transportation, free lodging, gifts, junkets, commissions or assignments from current or potential news sources.

Even if Prof. Tripsas hadn't written about the center, she might have been deemed in violation of the rules, which are designed to prevent freelancers from accepting freebies from companies currying favor for future stories, as well as current assignments.

But by writing about 3M after her November trip, Prof. Tripsas openly violated the NYT's rules against accepting any form of compensation, including travel expenses, from people, companies and institutions being written about.

In response to questions from The NYTPicker, Prof. Tripsas confirmed that she accepted free airline travel and accommodations from 3M.

"I am a professor who does research on innovation and, in fact 3M was not aware of my recent NYT affiliation when they invited me," Prof. Tripsas told The NYTPicker via email. "As a professor, I am sometimes invited to speak to companies about innovation, and it is not unusual for the company to reimburse travel expenses, so 3M did pay for my hotel and airfare. I did not inform the New York Times of that since I viewed the visit as a speaking engagement that was part of my broader academic research. "

Prof. Tripsas, an associate professor in the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School, has been writing the NYT's Sunday business "Prototype" column regularly since August; today's piece marked her fifth appearance as a NYT columnist.

Prof. Tripsas was joined on the junket by several other academics and business innovation experts, including Prof. Michael Lippitz of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Jeffrey Phillips, vice president for sales and marketing at OVO (a Raleigh, N.C.-based company focused on innovation) and a handful of others.

The NYTPicker has contacted NYT spokeswoman Abbe Serphos for comment.

We have also emailed Patricia Kranz, the NYT's deputy Sunday Business editor and Prof. Tripsas's editor on the piece. NYT rules also state:

Assigning editors and producers who deal with nonstaff contributors should be aware that a freelancer's previous involvements and professional behavior can prove an embarrassment. They should make every effort to insure that a freelancer has no history or ties that would raise a real or apparent conflict of interest on a particular assignment.

We've asked Kranz whether she believes Tripsas's acceptance of a free trip from 3M constitutes a "real or apparent conflict of interest." We'll update with her response.

It will be interesting to see whether the NYT takes any action against Prof. Tripsas for her acceptance of a free trip to 3M headquarters. Any decision to let Prof. Tripsas continue her column would directly contradict its decision to terminate Mike Albo as the Styles section's "Critical Shopper" columnist, in the wake of revelations that he had taken a Jamaica junket from Thrillist and JetBlue Airlines. In that instance, the junket didn't directly relate to any of Albo's columns, but a NYT spokeswoman said in October of Albo's transgression:

After a further review of the details, we do have concerns about Mike Albo's participation in the Jamaica trip organized by Thrillist. To the extent feasible, we apply our strict ethical standards to all Times contributors, and accepting free trips and other giveaways is at odds with those standards.

We're still waiting for comment from the NYT.


Unknown said...

3M really knows how to bribe, a trip to Minnesota in the winter

Anonymous said...

Please, does Tripsas really expect us to believe 3M didn't know she had a New York Times column?

Andy said...

"Junket?" A stretch.

Anonymous said...

What is fascinating to me is that Harvard doesn't see the same conflicts as the NYT and that's probably why she doesn't see the conflicts. I agree with the NYT that this kind of influence is subtle and worth defending against, but I'm afraid that they don't want to pay the price for generating quality stories built by people who aren't under the influence.

My guess is that this woman is already cutting her rate dramatically to write the column with rationalizations like "it looks good on my resume" or that it "will bring in more consulting." That alone should be an alarm bell for serious journalists. The trouble is that the NYT either doesn't have the money to pay someone enough to avoid these temptations or they're not willing to do so.

I understand the temptation with getting smart academics that can write coherent sentences. She's probably a sharp person who comes in contact with a number of great ideas and stories, but it's the very nature of this mingling that runs counter to classic journalistic instincts.

This event has made me wonder why Harvard doesn't think there's something wrong with her getting paid by 3M and calling this part of her normal academic "research". Of course it's going to make her biased.

This kind of conflict has already perverted the drug development game. Ask any researcher and it's clear that someone who gets money from drug company A doesn't write negative things about the drugs from company A.

The drug business is even more disheartening because society already pours a huge amount of taxpayer money into the scientific world, but that world is so competitive that it can't keep out the drug company influence. Sigh.

I wish I had more time to flesh this out and tighten it up, but NYTPicker isn't paying me and I've got to put bread on the table. This is the biggest problem for society: how to reward information synthesis.

BG said...

Oh come on there is no ethics breach here. Yes, it may have gone against the rules of the NYT, but do you seriously think that a ONE DAY trip to visit the offices in a city nobody is really angling to visit a junket?

Come on. That's just plain research. If they sent her along on a field trip to visit a customer in Tokyo... then perhaps.

I think this is all a lot of fuss over nothing.

Anonymous said...

The issue isn't the rule, it's the haphazard way the Times applies it. If you're Mike Albo, you get fired. If you're david Pogue or some Harvard professor, you get a slap on the wrist.

Mark B said...

All the news that we think you are fit to read.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry. It is a junket and it is bad for the business. Companies that can wrangle a way to get more face time with columnists are more likely to get chosen to illustrate some point made by the columnist. It's that simple. One of the biggest challenge for PR folks is getting the attention of the journalists. Trips like this are ideal ways.

Now it may be that the NYT can't afford to pay enough to keep quality commentators but maybe they can.

Anonymous said...

The biggest problem is that the column wasn't very good. Also, the Times is loath to pay research expenses for its freelance business columnists.

Anonymous said...

Academics consult (10,000$/hr not atypical) and engage at the entrepreneurial interface. Temptation is costly in the long-run, for ex. an academic researcher only seeing the good in potential drug A, because that's what makes Prof. B melt like butter.

This Prof. Tripsi might have written up an uncritical love letter in exchange for office supplies, and that's what people pay to learn at HBS. That and good posture.

Anonymous said...

"Academics consult (10,000$/hr not atypical)"

Umm, I think $10,000 per hour would be considered, like, way atypical.

Anonymous said...

Well, some Times writers have had their price at $10,000+ an appearance, and that includes reporters on the news side.

Anonymous said...

If a hooded man winks at you, would you take it as a complement or IMAGINE a motive more sinister [at the expense of your bubble bursting, and your innocence self-corrupted]? What if the bamboozler's feedback quite literally, actually destined you to the point of no return?

For further waste floating in space, read, Wet kisses saving the day for slippery slopes, by Grasshopper Slim, and Je suis Moss Adso/U.B.Tranquil by Laced Schrooms.

Anonymous said...

I was taken aback by what Hoyt said about the young journalist Joshua Robinson. Exactly who contacted Mr. Hoyt to complain about the writer? Was the unnamed caller an acquaintance of Hoyt's? Which airline publication was he with? Why was Hoyt contacted as opposed to Corporate? What's going on?

Hoyt leaves out the fact that Robinson writes largely about sports, and never about travel? Why try and shame this young man? Why make the fellow sound slick by including the "street creds" quote and nothing else? Why didn't Hoyt just inform the caller of the young man's status as a freelancer and leave it at that? Why try and turn it into a "gottch ya" thing. I'm surprised at Mr. Hoyt.

I hope the Times revisits this matter and rights the wrong.

Anonymous said...

This is a joke of a story. Whoever is writing for the NYTPicker is a coward - "prefers to remain anonymous".

You pick on real people, yet remain anonymous. That's nice.

I work for a consumer products company and we have sent our products to journalists at virtually every paper in the country, and, at $500 to $1000 each, they have rarely returned them - and we get nice reviews. This is much more blatant than a previous trip paid by a company that did not even know of her affiliation with the NY Times.

Why don't you anonymous types report on the money our elected officials are getting directly from those companies who are affected by the laws they write?