Brinksmanship with News Corp. President Peter Chernin

peter chernin
Rupert Murdoch, Peter Chernin

A Forrester Forum, like any big event, is quite a production. As part of it, you interact with powerful people in industry, people like Peter Chernin, and that doesn’t always go exactly as planned. I’ll take you behind the scenes at one of these events that included an unexpected moment of terror.

It’s September 2004, and we’re at the Forrester Consumer Forum, our biggest event of the year, at the Grand Hyatt in New York City. The 700 people that are there include many Forrester clients, plus the sponsors who’ve paid money to market to these clients, plus at least 50 Forrester people including events staff and analysts. The event makes money, not only through client ticket sales, but because it’s where we impress those clients with our insights and influence and extend our relationships.

Because everybody knows the stakes, a lot goes into it.

Maria is the person in charge of operations for the event. She’s got a headset on and coordinating about a dozen events staff. These are the people who have built the massive, sparkling stage and are running the big HD camera at the back of the room and the thousands of pounds of equipment behind the stage. Maria is a low-key manager in a high-stress job, because she knows that at any moment some technical glitch in this complex system can ruin the experience for everyone. Her job is to make sure that never happens.

My boss at the time, whose name I’ll leave out of this, is in charge of content. He and the rest of his team, including me, have been recruiting the most impressive industry speakers we can get. This year we’ve got the CEOs of Leo Burnett, Aetna, and JetBlue. We don’t pay for speakers; they want to impress our audience and so do we, so it’s gratis on both sides. We’ve also got Peter Chernin, the president of News Corp., who is Rupert Murdoch’s right-hand man and probably one of the ten most powerful people in the entertainment industry. Peter Chernin makes deals at a level we’ll never get close to; that’s why we want him on our stage.

We’ve prepped with Chernin’s people about his talk, which is called “10 Rules for Media Survival.” As Forrester’s television analyst, I’ve been intimately involved with selecting Chernin, wooing him, and prepping for him, but I’ve never spoken with him. We’re all looking forward to hearing how a major media company is dealing with the onslaught of disruption from DVRs, YouTube, and the Internet.

We’re in the midst of a break; Chernin is supposed to go on in 10 minutes. His short presentation (about 15 minutes of content) is cued up on the projectors. He comes striding down the aisle amidst the buzzing attendees. He’s an imposing figure, really good-looking, with a suit and shoes that are probably worth as much as all the equipment behind the stage. Maria and I are at the front of the room with a couple other people. My boss, who will grill him on stage after his talk, is taking a much-needed break somewhere.

Chernin engages us in conversation.

“This looks like a pretty successful event,” says Chernin.

“Yup, we’ve got about 700 people here,” I say.

“How much do they pay for a ticket?” he asks.

“Over a thousand dollars,” I say. Many of those tickets are bundled into bigger relationships, but I’m trying to impress him, which is, of course, pointless.

“Hmm. You are are making a lot of money from this event.”

We say nothing. A few moments pass. Chernin gets a gleam in his eye.

“I think you should pay me for this speech,” he says. “A lot of people are here, and they are paying to see me. What do you think is a good price?”

Maria gets a look of terror on her face. The lights are beginning to come down and the attendees are streaming back into the room. We’re five minutes away from Chernin’s introduction. My boss is probably talking to a client, but we don’t know where he is.

I’m about to pee my pants, but I realize that if I don’t do something, it will only get worse. This is what I say:

“You make an interesting point, Mr. Chernin. Look, our speakers tend to come here for the exposure. You’re about to make some impressive points about the media industry and show people that News Corp. has a strategy for the future.

Here’s the deal. We don’t pay our speakers, and this is the first time you’ve even raised the question. If you feel you should get paid, fine, you don’t have to speak. That would be very embarrassing for us. But it’s not going to look very good for you, either. You came here to say something. So why don’t you get ready to go on stage and say it, and we’ll all get what we came for.”

Now Maria looks like she is going to throw up.

Chernin gets a thoughtful look on his face. I realize he was never going to hold us up. He was just sizing us up. I’ve passed a test of some kind.

“OK,” he says. My boss appears and I introduce them; they shake hands. The room is now dark. My boss goes on stage and reads Chernin’s introduction. Chernin walks on and wows the audience with a hell of presentation.

I’m trying to listen but it’s hard with the blood rushing in my ears. As they come off stage, I smile at him. I’m in no position to make a deal with Peter Chernin, but hey, I think I just did.

Photo: Business Insider

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    1. You can react to the moment.

      Or you can think strategically about the positions of the parties in the negotiation.

      The tough part is to do the latter after you have been kicked in the nuts.