Around the same time he was voicing support for Occupy Wall Street, Malcolm Gladwell participated in a speaking tour to help Bank of America win new small business customers. Hours after Bank of America announced the news in a press release on Wednesday morning, the disapproving tweets started flowing, and even The New Yorker, where Gladwell is a staff writer, is drawing criticism from, among others, Mother Jones editor Clara Jeffrey who said his latest gig has "terrible ethical optics." But Gladwell didn't even know that Bank of America was bragging about his speaking engagements until we emailed him.
"This is the first I'm hearing of this press release," Gladwell told The Atlantic Wire. "I did a talk about innovation for a group of entrepreneurs in Los Angeles a while back, sponsored by Bank of America. They liked the talk, and asked me to give the same talk at two more small business events — in Dallas and yesterday in D.C. That's the extent of it. No different from any other speaking gig. I haven't been asked to do anything else and imagine that's it."
Gladwell added, "The speech in question was about the history of the rock band Fleetwood Mac."
Plenty of journalists think he crossed ethical lines, but Gladwell doesn't see how his behavior is any different than other journalists. "I don't consult, advise, collaborate or promote," Gladwell told us in an email. "But like any number of other writers these days who do speaking on the side, I'm happy to chat about whatever I'm working on to whomever wants to listen."
Gladwell is a frequent speaker at corporate events. His policy on speaking engagements on his website in which he says of his job as a journalist at The New Yorker and a paid public speaker, "I recognize that there is also the possibility that these two roles can come into conflict, as is always the case when someone has to serve two different constituencies."
The Society for Professional Journalists code of ethics has its own guidlines about independence: "Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility." But the outrage over his Bank of America engagements has less to do with journalism ethics than it does with the current bad P.R. for Bank of America. It's also unclear how much Gladwell told his bosses at The New Yorker. When we called the magazine's press office on Wednesday afternoon, they hadn't heard anything about the tour or the negative feedback but promised to look into the matter. We also reached out to the Leigh Bureau, who handles Gladwell's speaking engagements, as well as Bank of America to learn more, but neither returned our call in time for this post.