A bizarre incident in Pittsburgh

An owner of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette burst into the newsroom with his young daughter and aggressively berated employees. His twin brother defended him. The union has filed a complaint against the company. What can we learn from this?

By Barbara Spector

In a family-owned company, business is personal. That’s often a good thing — having the family’s reputation intertwined with the business can be an incentive to good behavior inside the office and out. Recently in Pittsburgh, however, the family/business connection went horribly awry.

On Saturday, Feb. 9, at around 10 p.m., journalists working on deadline at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette say the newspaper’s third-generation publisher, John Robinson Block, entered the newsroom with his pre-teen daughter. Newsroom staff said Block appeared to be intoxicated and was very angry.

Eyewitness accounts written by Post-Gazette journalists and made public by their union, the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, said Block demanded that the paper’s photo editor take a picture of him and his daughter in front of a sign posted on the guild’s bulletin board reading, “Shame on the Blocks!”

Block shouted that he wanted the photo to run on the “front page of tomorrow’s paper,” Post-Gazette web editor Marianne Mizera wrote.

The Post-Gazette, owned by Block Communications Inc., has been in contract negotiations with the union for 22 months. According to the guild, Post-Gazette journalists have not had a raise in 13 years and the owners have refused to comply with an administrative law judge’s order to properly fund their health insurance in 2018 and 2019.

Block “fervently demanded the photos be taken NOW, right away[,] and forcefully grabbed his daughter’s forearm, pulling her into the picture as she tried her best to pull away from him,” Mizera wrote. “She was crying, shaking and pleading with her father that she did NOT want to be in ANY photograph.

“She screamed, ‘Please, please Daddy, no!’ multiple times…."

“He was screaming in his daughter’s face about the Block family legacy: ‘Do you want to be high class or low class? You’re a Block, you’re one of us! You have to learn how to lead!’ ” reporter Andrew Goldstein wrote. “She was shaking and saying that she didn’t want to.…”

“JR behaved in a way that would get any ordinary employee fired on the spot and escorted out of the building for everybody’s safety,” paginator Alex Miller wrote. “He appeared totally out of control. He was loud and violent, and it was frightening to witness because he was so erratic.”

In a statement published Feb. 12 in NEXTpittsburgh, Block’s twin brother Allan Block, chairman of Block Communications, said: “The frustration over financial and other challenges in the newspaper industry led to an unfortunate exchange with employees of which I have been made aware.

“Block Communications regrets if anyone present may have misconstrued what occurred as anything other than an indication of strong concern and support for the legacy and future of the Post-Gazette. We want the entire staff to know that we will continue to value all of our employees and their contributions to the PG.”

The guild takes issue with Allan Block’s statement, calling it a “false narrative.” It says it released the journalists’ eyewitness accounts to refute the chairman’s description of his brother’s actions.

“We are dismayed that Allan Block’s only response was to try to whitewash this incident and politicize it by blaming it on corporate financial stresses….,” the guild wrote in a statement posted on its website along with the journalists’ accounts.

The guild has filed a complaint against the Post-Gazette with the National Labor Relations Board. A member of the paper’s staff sent two videos of the publishers’ rant to WTAE, a local TV station, which aired them.

This cringe-inducing incident offers some important lessons for family business owners. Some are obvious, others perhaps less so.

• Even if you believe the guild acted inappropriately in posting a sign invoking the Block name in its effort to advance the contract negotiations, family business ownership means that the family name will be publicly associated with the business. This can be — and often is — a source of great pride, but it can be a source of embarrassment when something goes south, either with the business or with the family. It’s important for NextGen family members to understand this. It goes without saying that John Block’s way of teaching this lesson to his daughter, as described by the newsroom staff, was horrific.

• The guild said in its statement, “The Guild believes that John Block has personal issues that must be addressed before he is allowed to return to the newsroom and be around his employees, both for our safety and his.” Only a professional in the field is qualified to assess Block’s mental health. That being said, all too many family businesses enable troubled relatives by keeping them employed despite substance abuse that interferes with job performance.

• Regardless of mental health issues Block may or may not be facing, the guild was likely correct in its suggestion that the Post-Gazette would have fired a non-family employee who exhibited such aggressive behavior. Many business families have developed family employment policies explicitly stating that family members must meet the same standards as any other team member. Some family employment policies go further, stating that family employees must meet higher standards.

• Allan Block’s defense of his brother is an example of a strategy described by Jennifer Freyd, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, as “DARVO” — an acronym that stands for “Deny the behavior, Attack the complainant, and Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender.” The guild noted in its statement that the Post-Gazette did not provide crisis counseling for the staff, prevent John Block from entering the newsroom again or formally interview any staff members who witnessed the incident, and that Allan Block did not personally speak to employees about his brother’s behavior.

The saddest part of this sad story is that John Block’s young daughter was dragged into the incident. Her father’s insistence in bringing her to the newsroom that Saturday evening may influence her opinion of the family and the business for years to come — and not in a good way.