How to kill a personality

About a month ago, Fortune‘s Jeffrey O’Brien interviewed Seagate CEO Bill Watkins, and pulled the conversation’s most memorable quote for the headline: “Let’s face it, we’re not changing the world. We’re building a product that helps people buy more crap – and watch porn.”
Predictably, the honestly and entertainment value of the quote got Watkins hailed as a hero by those tired of the usual platitudes for the press. So what comes next? The requisite apology:

In the course of one particular conversation with a Fortune Magazine blogger, in which we discussed a number of topics including sports, business and politics, I also explained how the proliferation of digital content and e-commerce were benefiting the storage business. In illustrating both the positive and negative impacts that the Internet and “we” as technology companies have on the world, unfortunately, and unwisely, I also used pornography as an example to illustrate a point. Fortune Magazine chose to focus narrowly on this example in their headline. I did not state this as our “mission.” They are in the news business and eager to get their reader’s attention and I should have known better. Even though I believe Fortune’s headline writers took my comments out of context, I want you to know that I am sorry if this has in any way offended anyone. Clearly, I value everyone who works at Seagate and the culture we have built together.

Here we have a chain of perfectly reasonable behaviors leading to a result that’s unsatisfactory for everyone involved. Watkins reasonably said the quote in the context of a dinner conversation with a number of bloggers, where I’m sure a lot of jokes were being exchanged. O’Brien reasonably included the line in the story because it’s a good hook for presenting the company as down-to-earth. O’Brien’s editor Jim Ledbetter reasonably used the line in the story’s headline because, in his own words, “as O’Brien’s editor on this story, I moved the quote high up in the story, and also turned it into a headline that, yes, I thought would grab the reader’s attention.”
And some Seagate employees in Minnesota reasonably thought, “Hey, my work is more important than just letting somebody store porn.”
Hard Drive But the net result is that Seagate’s CEO is going to work extra hard to never show any personality or have a sense of humor again when he’s on the record. Jeff O’Brien will be a little more reluctant to include the killer line in a story. Jim Ledbetter is going to be more sensitive to charges he’s being sensational in his headlines. And Seagate employees are going to spend more time worrying about whether their CEO represents them accurately, or if their work is meaningful.
There must be some lesson to be learned here, about the telephone game. Or about how the fact that any of us can be quoted out of context as public figures at virtually any time. But what I see right now is the depressing reality that everybody can be completely reasonable, and the end result is that nobody is allowed to show the most engaging, interesting and unique parts of their personality. I want to blame the Minnesotans, but it’s really not their fault.