Swedish shows stark contrast with Braly

May 28, 2013
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I wrote a story over the weekend about Joe Swedish, the new WellPoint Inc. CEO, who is now two months into the job. Swedish allowed me to tag along for nearly two hours on a Saturday morning while he spoke to and observed WellPoint employees volunteering on a community service day.

It was a night-and-day experience compared to my interactions with Swedish’s predecessor, Angela Braly.

In her 63 months as CEO, Braly never granted me an interview—even though I made several requests. During Braly’s entire tenure, I spoke to her for a total of about 30 seconds—and that was simply to introduce myself on the day in February 2007 when she was named to replace Larry Glasscock as CEO.

Now, I don’t expect many people to care about the frustrations journalists go through to obtain access to and information about the governments and businesses we cover.

And it’s fair to say that Braly, as the leader of one of the 50 largest companies in the United States, had larger concerns when it came to media relations than the Indianapolis Business Journal.

It’s also a fair point to mention that I once passed on a chance to catch a few minutes with Braly after an early-morning breakfast speech she was giving. It was not a commitment for an interview, just the chance to get a few words with her. So perhaps I missed my opening—although it was surely a small and never-repeated one.

And last I will add that WellPoint’s Indiana subsidiary, Anthem Blue Cross & Blue Shield, has always made its state-level executives available to me. I also at times interviewed nearly every other top WellPoint executive, except for Braly, during her tenure. And perhaps Braly thought that was adequate for the local media.

All that being said, it seems that a health insurer—which is naturally going to face lots of criticism no matter what it does—would see its hometown business journal as one outlet that might fairly describe the realities of its business.

But Braly, a career attorney, saw the news media as a courtroom adversary. We couldn’t help her, but we certainly could hurt her. She was wise enough not to shun the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNBC or Fortune magazine. But she relegated the local scribes, including me, to the sidelines.

That was a mistake. IBJ may not be on the nightstands of major investors on Wall Street or members of Congress in Washington, but it is read by the 4,500 people who work for WellPoint locally. It is read by state legislators and government officials, who also can give WellPoint grief from time to time. And it is read by the numerous local vendors, suppliers and professional services companies that WellPoint relies on to remain at the top of its industry.

It’s important for all of those stakeholders to understand WellPoint’s business, its challenges and how it’s trying to meet them.

Having an independent, third-party publication explain those issues can be helpful to corporate executives as they try to convince their employees to all move in the same direction and to convince local officials of what they are doing.

That’s how Jim Prieur, the former CEO of Carmel-based CNO Financial Group Inc., viewed things. He once said to me, when you write things that line up with what we tell our employees, it helps cement our message internally.

I’m not at all saying that IBJ exists to be a patsy for local companies. We have a reputation for, at times, being quite negative and critical about local businesses.

But we also spend a great amount of time explaining, in-depth, what local businesses are doing and why. Wouldn’t any local CEO, even one that plays on a national or international stage, want to take the opportunity to tell his or her company’s story?

That’s how John Lechleiter, the CEO of Eli Lilly and Co., seems to approach IBJ. I’ve had several interviews with him since he became CEO in 2008. And other Lilly officials say they’re willing to talk to me because they think I understand their business, and portray it fairly, even when I write critical things about Lilly.

It seems to me Joe Swedish sees things similarly. My first story about him was largely positive—indeed, after initial skepticism, it is difficult to find many people criticizing him yet.

But that will come. At some point in the future, I will write a critical article about WellPoint and perhaps about Swedish directly. It will be interesting to see if he keeps talking to me then. My hunch is, he will.

  • Petty
    This comes off as a "kingmaker" speech, the kind of small market mentality that penetrates Indianapolis to the core. So a big shot exec won't talk to you? Find more sources, Wall, or quit whining. Veiled threats to the next guy and suggestions that doing things that didn't work for you doomed the last guy is simply petty.
    • Keep it coming
      Joe P, I love the 'kingmaker' crack. I relish your critical spirit. It makes this blog fun. -- J.K.
    • Petty #2
      Here we have a local journalist grousing about not getting access to the CEO of a national company. Yet that same journalist was admittedly given access to all the Anthem leadership (and most of the Wellpoint leadership), which is more germane to the local Indianapolis market. Why was that not good enough access to allow the author to be fair and accurate in his reporting? The author is openly biased against insurance companies. Here are two quotes that are evidence of the same: a "health insurer [will face]... a lot of criticism no matter what it does." The author is obviously speaking from experience. And, "I will write a critical article about WellPoint and perhaps about Swedish directly." Did the author miss the class in journalism school where his professor taught how to hide fervent jealousies (no access to Braly) and anti-business bias (promising to write a negative article about Wellpoint)? Mr. Wall just showed his hand. He did IBJ's readership a service by indicating his work cannot be trusted, at least when it comes to reporting on health insurance companies.
      • You might consider this
        Michael, I don't mind you accusing me of bias--believe me we all have our flaws and blind spots--but I don't believe this blog post gives you any evidence for doing so. To observe, as I did, that health insurance companies face a lot of criticism is not bias; it is simply a fact--obvious to anyone living in the United States in any recent year. And I would contend that if I, a priori, refuse to write any critical articles about a company--no matter what they do or no matter what criticism they receive from other stakeholders, then that would be journalistic malpractice. Since it is a fact that health insurers are frequently criticized, then it is inevitable that I will at some point have to write about some of that criticism flowing toward WellPoint. Would you rather me ignore all criticism of WellPoint and only report the positive things said about it? Would that be fair journalism?

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