How Sumner Redstone Tamed The Media

Sumner Redstone (right) with Philippe Dauman during better times (photo Fortune Magazine)

Anyone involved today with Sumner Redstone’s Viacom succession should understand this clearly: if he’s alive, he’s winning.

Redstone laid out a lavish lunch in the oversized dining room adjoining his also not very small office. The shrimp were like lobsters. I ate like a boxing champ and he didn’t touch his food but got right down to business.

“Business Week lied about the fire that burned most of my body. They got a fireman to dispute my version. He said I was in no danger.”

And that’s how I happened to be the one who gave Sumner Redstone advice on dealing with the media. You see, I was the publisher of Forbes, the arch nemesis of Business Week. Now they were his arch nemesis, too.

Boy wonder

Sumner Redstone has a genius IQ, and he’s not reluctant to let you know it. Like nearly everything else about his backstory, the details are mere footnotes to the Redstone myth, but there are a few things you should know.

He joined his father’s theater chain, National Amusements, in 1967, and soon recognized the future of the entertainment was content over distribution. Redstone didn’t let an idea this good go to waste, so he coined the phrase for which he will be long remembered, “content is king.” Through diligence, determination, and deal making, he owns or controls Viacom and the CBS Network. He’s worth around $6 billion according to Forbes. And believe me, he’s counting.

Redstone came from a prominent Boston Jewish family. Religion wasn’t in his long range planning, so when Sumner was 17 he asked his father to change the family name from Rothstein to Redstone (a literal translation) to sound more like a waspish tycoon. He wasn’t even 20 yet, but thinking many moves ahead.

Boston Latin is to preparatory high schools what Arnold Schwarzenegger is to weight lifting, the most accomplished public institution in the United States. Of course, Sumner graduated first in his class. Then he finished Harvard in three years. During WWII, he decoded Japanese messages as a brilliant cryptographer for the OSS, a forerunner to the CIA. From there he want to Harvard Law School and by his graduation in 1947, he was ready.

The Night of the Fire

In 1979, Redstone was staying at the Copley Plaza hotel in Boston when fire broke out. He was unable to leave his room, and as flames entered the doorway and he crept onto the ledge outside his window. He suffered extensive burns over 90% of his body. The surgical team took 30 hours at Massachusetts General Hospital, where today the burn unit is named after him. It took him 8 years of a grueling rehab regimen and multiple more surgeries before he could say he was back physically. By the time it was finished he was playing competitive tennis by taping the racquet to his grip. Sumner’s drive to conquer things isn’t just business, it’s primordial.

From time to time, people have underestimated Redstone, at their own peril, as his board found out when they required him to take a psychological exam confirming mental fitness. They may have forgotten to think back to that night at the Copley Plaza. There is something there that is going to triumph.

In Sumner’s office

Redstone was literally crying about an article in BusinessWeek (now Bloomberg BusinessWeek), which questioned the veracity of his Copley Plaza fire story. Sumner’s arm is usually covered in a business suit, but any time he shirt sleeves are rolled up it is quite clear he was burnt to the bone. He wasn’t making it up, that’s for sure.

In an attempt to find something to say that was controversial during a slow period, Business Week was able to coerce a comment from the rescuing fireman that made it appear Sumner exaggerated his wounds. It is possible that deep burns may manifest themselves even days after an accident, and the fireman simply told the magazine what he saw. In any case, Business Week used the anecdote to question his character.

Sumner never had an enemy attack him at that personal, intimate level, so he was flummoxed. He looked me in the eye and asked, “Should I sue?”

I responded, “There are two ways to handle this as someone in the business will tell you. The media prefers that your PR person write the editor. The magazine will run the letter in the back of the next issue. No one reads it, they don’t have to make an apology, and it will make you look defensive. There is another way, but there’s a risk.”

“Let me be the judge of that.”

“Go dark. It means radio silence. Talk to no one. Shut down.”

“What then?”

“In three months, everyone has forgotten the story, even the reporter from BusinessWeek. Then you strike back. Leak something newsy to their competitor. Give them an exclusive. BusinessWeek will think it’s just the way the chips fell. And then you come out with a second story a few weeks later, and take that to the next competitor.”

“What if they retaliate?”

“They’ll be so embarrassed by the scoops, you’ll start getting calls from their editor in chief inviting you for lunch.Your power lies in access. So use it.”

Sumner went dark. He gave his next stories to Fortune, the Wall Street Journal and Forbes. To my knowledge, BusinessWeek — which sold itself for peanuts to Bloomberg — never got another story. Even today.

Don’t mess with Sumner, unless you plan to outlive him.