Was the Nokia PR guy just doing his job? Jerking me around? Or both?

You make the call: Is this tale nothing more than inside baseball? Sour grapes? Or a classic example of how difficult it is to get a straight answer from a company that doesn't want to give one?

Background: On Jan. 13 in Vallejo, Calif., a man was seriously burned in a fire that the on-site investigator initially insisted began when the cell phone in the victim's pocket ignited. The news didn't make the Sunday papers, but Monday and Tuesday saw the story explode worldwide in newspaper, radio, TV and Internet reports. Missing from all of those reports was the name of the manufacturer and model of phone, not because reporters didn't ask but because officials in Vallejo were inexplicably keeping that information secret.

Critical point to keep in mind: The fire investigator did tell Nokia no later than Monday that its phone was involved.

By Wednesday I'd had my fill of the stonewalling and started contacting major cell-phone makers, which led to one of the more bizarre exchanges I've had in 30 years of reporting. Here's my first e-mail sent Wednesday afternoon to Nokia spokesman Keith Nowak:

Hi Keith,

I am trying to find out which company made the cell phone that was involved in that fire over the weekend that left a California man injured. Could you please find out for me whether or not this was a Nokia phone, or let me know who could do that. I would appreciate a reply whether the answer is "yes, it was one of ours," "no, not ours," or "we don't know." The fire investigator told me that he did notify the manufacturer, so if it was Nokia someone there should know.

Nowak's reply:

Hi paul...afraid i have not heard of this yet, but i'll keep my ears open and let you know if anyone brings it up with me...

Alarm bells ring immediately. As any good public relations professional will tell you, the job is not to keep your "ears open" and report back "if anyone brings it up." (Can't you just picture Nowak in the company cafeteria, ears cocked, listening for any hint of an answer to my query?) No, they're supposed to find the right people, ask the right questions and report back. … Except, of course, when the company doesn't want the right answers made public.

But I'm willing to give Nowak the benefit of the doubt at this early point in our exchange. Perhaps he just dashed off a reply and used more casual language than might have been wise. Certainly he didn't mean what he wrote to be taken literally. My next try minutes later:

Hi Keith,

Thanks for getting back. … I really would appreciate getting a definitive answer from someone regarding Nokia's involvement/non-involvement, since this "mystery" has been ongoing for days now. Again, thanks for your time.

PAUL

Nowak's prompt second reply:

You'll know if i hear anything....

Again with the "if I hear anything." … At this point those alarm bells are so deafening I can barely muster a civil response. But here's what I came up with:

Hi Keith,

I honestly don't mean to be snippy here, but I'm afraid I am not fully understanding your replies (I've been getting the run-around from other vendors, so perhaps I'm too touchy today). Does "you'll know if I hear anything" mean that you will ask the appropriate people and get back to me with a definitive answer? Because a literal reading of your first reply coupled with a literal reading of your second reply would indicate that you're merely keeping your ears open. Again, my apologies in advance if I'm reading this too literally, but I didn't want there to be any confusion as to my needs and expectations.

Thanks again,

PAUL

Nowak's turn:

Paul...not keeping anything from you...i've seen the same story, but have no idea if the phone in question was ours or not. If it was, i'm sure i'll hear about it soon, and can share what i learn.

Jiminy-crickets, man, the whole world is going to hear about it soon. I'm asking you to pick up the phone or walk down the hall and please ask someone. And note the change over only half an hour from "afraid I have not heard of this yet" in the first reply to "I've seen the same story" here.

Here's try No. 4 from me, and this time he makes me stoop to bringing my wife into the discussion:

keith: i swear that my wife and i have conversations like this sometimes. I'll try again: Are you going to *actively* seek an answer to my question *today*? Ask the people within Nokia who *would* know one way or another? Or have someone else ask those people the right questions? Again, from a literal reading of your reply, I get the impression that you're telling me that you're simply going to wait to be informed and then, if that should ever occur, you'll share it with me. That's not what I'm asking you to do for me. And, to be perfectly honest, I'm now starting to wonder if you're not being intentionally obtuse.

Intentionally obtuse: a polite way of saying I think you're jerking me around, which is a polite way of saying I think you're lying. And, of course, I was fudging the "starting to wonder" part, since that had been my suspicion from his first e-mail. Here is Nowak's reply and the final chapter of our Wednesday exchange:

Paul...I'll try to keep it simple as possible. I don't know. I've asked my internal contacts. They don't know.

Remember this is late Wednesday afternoon, the Vallejo fire has been rip-roaring worldwide news since Monday morning, the fire inspector informed Nokia of its involvement no later than Monday, and Nowak is unquestionably the correct contact person, as we'll see in a moment.

Before leaving the office Wednesday evening I told a few colleagues that it was my considered opinion that Nokia made the smoking phone … and I dearly regret not having committed that thought to this blog at that time.

Here's the kicker: Within a few hours of Nowak's fourth parrying of my question, the fire inspector would be telling another reporter that he had met with Nokia engineers at about the same time I was wrestling with Nowak, that he watched the Nokia guys test the phone, and that he came away convinced that he had been wrong in his determination that the phone started the fire. (The victim's lawyers remain unconvinced.)

On Thursday Nowak had no trouble finding either the confirmation that it was a Nokia phone (information that had been available within his company for days) or his voice, as he was quoted in many newspapers trumpeting the fire inspector's change of heart.

But, hey, I don't mean to imply that Nowak didn't keep his pledge to keep his ears open and let me know if he heard anything. I received this next e-mail from him just before 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, otherwise known as the better part of a day after news organizations coast to coast (including Network World) had reported the information he was now finally willing to share:

Just landed back in new york, and seems a lot happened overnight. We ended up sending an engineer to assist the local fire investigator, and the conclusion from the investigator was that the phone was not the cause of this fire. In fact, both the phone and battery were still in working order. So, turns out the gentleman was carrying a nokia phone, but it had nothing to do with the cause of this incident.

I started to draft a response, but couldn't find the right words absent all my favorite curses. So, Keith, please consider this account my thank-you for getting me that information.

(Update: Some of the PR industry bloggers are starting to weigh in on this, as in here and here, for example. And this one where Peter Shankman notes that "Nokia hemmed and hawed enough to make a dress.")

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