Warren Buffett: Wall Street's No. 1 Media Manipulator

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by Jon Friedman
May 6, 2013 12:14 PM
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Warren Buffett must be the sexiest man on television. 

All he has to do is open his mouth and the business-television networks come running. The print media do, too.

No matter what he says, they quote him. I am not writing this to diminish Buffett in any way -- simply to point how he successful he is at controlling his message to the media. And isn't that what every celebrity dreams of doing? Buffett could teach them all a master class.

I did a quick Google search just now (late morning of May 6) and came up with more than a dozen notations from earlier today. Buffett says stocks will go a lot higher. (Hey, so do I, but nobody is clamoring for my two cents. Then again, I'm not the Oracle of Omaha, of course).

Naturally, I understand Buffett's appeal. He is one of the most accomplished stock-market prognosticators of all time. If someone can truly possess a genius gene for stock picking then Buffett has one. 

But what amuses me, after all these years of watching how Buffett brilliantly manipulates the media, is his success at getting out his words in an unfiltered way -- especially on CNBC, the leading business-TV network by far.

It's not so much WHAT Buffett says on CNBC (or any other channel), really. It is that he speaks up at all. 

You see, one of Buffett's truly forward-thinking marketing strategies is to parse out his words of wisdom. 

I covered Buffett, as a part of my Wall Street beat, for over a decade and never once did he take my calls (though his handlers in Omaha were polite to a fault about refusing my interview requests over the years).

In this respect, he is as cunning, calculating and devious as Mad Men's Don Draper, who gets kudos among popular culture wags for his blatant ruthlessness. Draper ought to meet Buffet. THAT would be entertaining, all right.

Clearly, Buffett talks to whomever he pleases -- as he well should. 

He owed me nothing -- and that hasn't changed. He knew he couldn't much mileage out of talking with me in those instances. 

A few well chosen minutes each quarter on CNBC is worth its weight its gold for Buffett. In this respect, he is the ultimate -- and the smartest -- media manipulator on Wall Street. 

(I haven't done a formal search today but I would suspect that either I or another journalist has previously used the headline attached to this story -- but it always fits Warren Buffett.)

Following the No. 1 precept of the theater, Buffett always leaves them wanting more.

This can't be an accident. I suspect that once the word of Buffett's prowess began to spread, and he was quickly deluged with interview requests again and again, he studied the print and broadcast media (the Web hadn't come along yet), the way a politician might do. 

He quickly sussed out who were the industry's power players, and wisely gave them time and access accordingly. No one would ever take Warren Buffett for granted because of media overexposure. Soon, journalists began to covet a few minutes of face time with Buffett, the way Rolling Stone once pursued John Lennon or Bob Dylan or Mick Jagger.

Of course, if the great man gave you some of his precious time, the tacit agreement was that you OWED him something -- call it a courtesy ("Don" Warren, the Godfather of Wall Street) -- which he expected you to pay up every time. 

I imagine that any scribe who dared to cross him wound up on the outside looking in. That's also the way the game is played.

Add to Buffett's limited availability the sheer theater of The Big Interview. That's why the TV networks invariably dispatches smart, attractive women to interview Buffett on the tube. 

What could be more goofy fun for a viewer than watching this frisky senior citizen sort of flirt with such serious newswomen as Becky Quick of CNBC or Liz Claman of Fox Business? 

It's really the best of all worlds for the networks: They get higher-than-normal TV ratings. It is terrific "TV" -- and the audience gets an education in the financial markets.

Last weekend, at home in Omaha, Buffett held the annual shareholder meeting of his public company, Berkshire Hathaway. It is regularly billed as "Woodstock for Millionaires." Buffett is always quite visible, yukking it up on stage during official proceedings and mingling with well wishers. No other executive has the charisma of Buffett during one of these usually dry affairs.

Maybe you scoffed before at my comparison of Buffett to Mick Jagger -- but he IS like a rock star, you know. 

I covered the event in Omaha twice, about a decade ago. Well accustomed to watching people view Wall Street icons with skepticism and even scorn, I was awed by the adulation Buffett received from his grateful shareholders and the adoring press assembled there. I thought about what I would do if my moment came and I could ask The Great Man a question of my own.

I decided to ask him something that I hoped no one had ever put to him before. 

Spying him standing momentarily alone during one of the weekend's many cocktail parties, I approached him, introduced myself deferentially and got the words out: "Mr. Buffett, is it fun being you?"

He flashed a devilish grin and gave me the only sensible answer:

"Yeaaaaahhhhh."

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