BOB GARFIELD: One of Michael Moore's targets in Fahrenheit 9/11 is the Washington investment firm The Carlyle Group, and he's hardly the first to take aim. Never mind the freemasons and the trilateral commission; the new millennium's unified theory of human events hinges on what one website calls "a sinister, war-mongering, worldwide octopus." Other online critics have called it "a shadowy, corrupt global network," and "the axis of corporate evil." Nor are the suspicions confined to the internet. The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, the L.A. Times and The Guardian have written with raised eyebrows about Carlyle's ties to the Bush family and the Saudis. American Prospect called Carlyle, quote, "nothing more than a gigantic corporate kickback," and The Economist summed it up tidily -- "The Carlyle Group," it wrote, "is a godsend for conspiracists who are convinced the world is run by and on behalf of a shadowy network or wealthy men." All of which heated rhetoric drives The Carlyle Group nuts. Christopher Ullman is vice president for corporate communications at Carlyle, and he joins me now. Chris, welcome to OTM.
MAN: Bob, it's good to be here. Thanks.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, it was very easy to google Carlyle Group and come up with any number of, you know, fairly wild-eyed conspiracy theories, at the center of which, purportedly, sat Carlyle, but it was a little more difficult to do that among legitimate news organizations.
MAN: If you go to Factivo or Lexis Nexus and type in Carlyle Group, you'll get articles by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and other respected publications that are for the most part focusing on our deal activity --things we buy and sell. But nonetheless we've had a challenge, even with the so-called legitimate press. For example, The Economist said that we were secretive and unapproachable -- despite the fact that I -- I -- had actually been in The Economist's offices the week before the article was written, meeting with the New York bureau chief at my request and had a very constructive meeting. Le Monde, you know, a prominent French publication, said that they wanted to interview Carlyle, so we set up an interview and then they wrote an article about us based on things they saw on the internet, and then published it before the interview. And in it said that we were secretive. [LAUGHS] Which was really pretty ironic, and said that you could not find out what companies we own. But at Carlyle.com we've got every company that we own on our website. So it really presents a challenge from a PR standpoint as to how do you overcome this kind of institution bias by even legitimate news organizations?
BOB GARFIELD: But what are you doing to counter the rumor-mongering that swirls around Carlyle Group?
MAN: We've engaged in a dramatic disclosure campaign. As I like to say, "Glasnost has come to The Carlyle Group," and we've done a, a whole range of activities -- everything from creating a state of the art website, we've conducted literally hundreds of media interviews and get-to-know-you chats with media literally around the world in the past couple of years to get people to focus on what we do -- which is invest money on behalf of -primarily institutional investors who buy companies, make them better, sell them, and make some money for our investors. It's as simple as that, at least in theory. In application it's been more challenging.
BOB GARFIELD: You're not stupid. You know what it is about Carlyle that has raised so many eyebrows and so many suspicions over the years. What would you characterize as the fundamental problem from which all of this PR difficulty ensues?
MAN: It focuses on three things -- one is that Carlyle made its name and early investment success in the defense sector, meaning we bought companies -- defense contractors, and made them better and sold them. That's part one. Part two is that several -- just a handful, around 6 or 7 former senior government officials were affiliated with Carlyle, including former President Bush, Secretary of Defense Carlucci, former Secretary of State Baker, Arthur Leavitt. And then, third, is that it was revealed after September 11th that a family member of the Bin Laden family was an investor in the Carlyle Group. Now Osama, who's clearly the evil guy, has 54 half-siblings, and it was their family investment arm that had invested with us. So this was kind of a cosmic soup of--information that the conspiracy theorists and even everyday folks found a little too delectable to ignore.
BOB GARFIELD: Your PR materials on Carlyle.com speak of the Carlyle edge. Now isn't the Carlyle edge that it has access to or at least leaves the perception of access to the corridors of power?
MAN: Frank Carlucci, former secretary of defense, helps Carlyle -- but the key is how he helps us versus how he does not help us. How he does help us is that he knows how the defense sector works, he knows people at defense contractors; he can call them up and say hey -you have a subsidiary that is clearly your ugly stepchild, and Carlyle would like to buy it. Are you interested? What he does not do is call up Donald Rumsfeld and say, hey, can you give Company XYZ that we own extra contracts. The assumption is that because Donald Rumsfeld and Frank Carlucci know each other and wrestled together in 1952, that therefore the rules are all bent to benefit Carlyle.
BOB GARFIELD: Your own co-founder, Daniel Rubinstein, has been quoted as saying in the Washington Post that, quote, "maybe you get this influence by people thinking you have it." Now he seemed to have been saying that as sort of a frustrated aside, but it sure sounds like a business strategy. You don't have a giant private equity fund if you don't have people to invest in it. And if you're trotting around President Bush or James Baker who, to the best of my knowledge, doesn't have any investment experience along with being a former secretary of state and political strategist and campaign manager and lawyer - you certainly are inviting the intimation that there is some influence to be peddled! No? I mean isn't there a structural problem that is at the very root of your image problem?
MAN: I disagree. We are very straightforward, both publicly and privately, about what each of these individuals does.
BOB GARFIELD: When you were hired two and a half years ago, and they said, Chris, you know, it's driving us crazy how people think we're sinister and evil and corrupt influence peddlers -- did you say to them, well, you know, just look at your letterhead and the names attached to it, it, it's no freakin' wonder?
MAN: Well put! [LAUGHS] [LAUGHTER] I'm a PR guy who deals with the facts. And there are some very tangible facts that have led people to get all excited about The Carlyle Group. So it's clearly a creation to a great extent of our own making. But that doesn't excuse superficiality by either the media or the public. And we, you know, we beg patience and understanding of people too, knowing that for 14 years, we did not communicate effectively, but that we have seen the light and see the virtue of an improved disclosure and want people to go beyond just the sexy surface. It's easy and superficial to simply say they are shadowy and dark and part of a cabal that runs the world, but ultimately, scratch the surface, actually make a phone call, talk to me and read real publications that have written real stories about our deals, and you'll find out that there's no there there other than 300 investment professionals who know what a good deal is and how to execute it.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Chris, thank you so much.
MAN: Bob, thanks for the opportunity, and have a good one.
BOB GARFIELD: Chris Ullmann is vice president for corporate communications for The Carlyle Group.