Inside a CEO’s Relationship With a TV Anchor

From a Wall Street Journal story by Khadeeja Safdar headlined “A Private Phone. Secret Recordings, Inside One CEO’s Relationship With a TV Anchor”:

Under Armour founder Kevin Plank gave television anchor Stephanie Ruhle a private phone with a special email address to communicate with him, sent her confidential financial information about the sportswear maker and enlisted her help to refute concerns about slumping sales, according to newly released court documents.

Plank and Ruhle were questioned by lawyers earlier this year in connection with a shareholder lawsuit, and portions of their depositions and some of their emails were recently unsealed in court. The documents provide new insights into their close ties and her unusual role as his adviser, which The Wall Street Journal first reported in 2019.

Plank and Ruhle corresponded regularly and at all hours, according to the documents. In 2016, Plank sent Ruhle what he described as a secret recording he made of a conversation he just had with another top executive at Under Armour. Earlier that year, the then-Bloomberg anchor advised Under Armour to give internal data to Bloomberg’s competitors to manage negative publicity, the court documents show.

A spokesman for Under Armour said, “As we’ve said, Mr. Plank has utilized outside advisors and that’s what these documents show. None of the information was used improperly.” He said Plank wasn’t available for an interview. Ruhle, who is now an anchor at MSNBC, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

‘She’s a confidant’

During his deposition, Plank described Ruhle’s role. “She’s a confidant,” he said. “I would give her counsel on her career and she would give me counsel on things I was dealing with that were either banking or media or human nature in relation.”

Plank, who was chief executive until the end of 2019 and remains the company’s executive chairman, said he gave Ruhle a cellphone and a special email address so she could communicate privately with him. In one instance, Oct. 24, 2016, the day before Under Armour reported disappointing quarterly results, Plank asked Ruhle to read and advise on the comments that executives planned to make the next day.

“We were friends and I covered his company,” Ruhle said in her deposition. Ruhle agreed with a lawyer when he asked if she had three devices: a work phone, a personal phone and a Kevin Plank phone. In her deposition, Ruhle also said she took free trips with Plank on his private plane.

When asked whether she was traveling as a Bloomberg reporter or as Plank’s friend, Ruhle responded: “I was flying on his plane as myself, Stephanie Ruhle. I’m not really in a category one or the other.”

The lawsuit, filed by shareholders in 2017 in a federal court in Maryland, alleges that Under Armour artificially inflated its share price, resulting in losses for them. At issue are the company’s 26 straight quarters of at least 20% year-over-year revenue growth, a streak that ended when Under Armour missed its sales targets in the final quarter of 2016.

Shareholders allege that Plank and others inside the company knew that sales had softened much earlier and they used improper methods to maintain the growth streak, such as enlisting Ruhle’s help to counter a January 2016 Morgan Stanley research report that highlighted weakening sales data.

The spokesman for Under Armour said the claims were “meritless and are being defended vigorously” in the ongoing litigation.

Reporter’s privilege

A federal judge in New York on Friday denied a request by the shareholders to compel Bloomberg to provide Ruhle’s emails, saying they were protected by reporter’s privilege. “The personal relationship between Ruhle and Plank did not mean that Ruhle was not acting as a journalist with respect to her dealings with Under Armour,” the judge wrote.

Spokeswomen for Bloomberg News and MSNBC declined to comment. Ruhle worked at Bloomberg from 2011 to March 2016 and has worked since 2016 at MSNBC, according to her LinkedIn profile.

The shareholders’ lawsuit cites several articles by the Journal, including stories that revealed Under Armour was under investigation by federal authorities examining whether the sportswear maker shifted sales from quarter to quarter.

Under Armour agreed in 2021 to pay $9 million to settle Securities and Exchange Commission claims that it failed to disclose that it was pulling forward orders from future quarters. It didn’t admit or deny wrongdoing.

In April 2015, Plank emailed Ruhle to discuss headlines on Bloomberg about Under Armour. She responded in an email (which contained typos): “You are 100% right– its a bad headline and bad practice I am commited to changing it on my side of the house (tv)… and then through envy admiration or shaming (hopefully) others will follow suit.”

‘My night’

A year later, in April 2016, Plank sent an audio recording to Ruhle of a conversation he recorded between himself and another Under Armour executive in which he called the company’s then-chief financial officer a “motherf—” for suggesting lower revenue projections.

Plank told lawyers in his deposition that he made the recording without asking the other executive for permission, and he sent the recording, which contained nonpublic information about Under Armour, to Ruhle without alerting the company’s board. He attached it to a two-word email to Ruhle that read, “My night.”

“As Mr. Plank testified in his deposition, the recording was made unintentionally and in no way does Mr. Plank record his conversations,” the Under Armour spokesman said. “By way of context, it was a $10 million proposed reduction in a quarter of $1 billion of revenue, which would be less than 1%.”

‘Risk of negativity’

On Jan. 10, 2016, Morgan Stanley published a report in which it downgraded Under Armour stock and reduced its price target citing slowing sales trends. Plank, whose company was in a “quiet period” requiring it to refrain from public communication, discussed privately with Ruhle how to combat the report, according to documents in the lawsuit.

On Jan. 11, Ruhle sent emails to Under Armour’s communications executive asking for data to combat the report and advising the executive to send it to competitors such as CNBC. “this content is perfect just in case anyone decides to cover the Morgan stanleyt thing – it combats any risk of negativity,” Ruhle wrote to the executive (the email contained typos).

She went on air at Bloomberg that afternoon and questioned the data in the Morgan Stanley report, mirroring some of the bullet points that Plank later shared in an email that day as a preview of what he planned to send to other outlets, according to documents in the lawsuit.

“The same fact sheet was sent to multiple media outlets at that time,” the Under Armour spokesman said.

Later that day, Plank sent Ruhle an email with a positive analyst report and wrote (in a note that contained a typo), “let’s get you a list to have them balance that bull shit story poisining the public markets!”

‘Look at that stock!!!’

Plank and Ruhle kept in close contact regarding the stock price until the next earnings call on Jan. 28, 2016, when Under Armour posted positive results. Ruhle forwarded Plank a Bloomberg article about Under Armour with the note, “boom!” and sent another email with the subject heading, “look at that stock!!!”

The next day, Under Armour helped arrange an interview for Ruhle with basketball star Stephen Curry, one of the brand’s athletes. On Feb. 2, Bloomberg posted the segment, which included Ruhle playing basketball with Curry.

Plank told his communications executive in an email that the Curry interview was “a great thank you for being the only member of media to get UA’s back when [Morgan Stanley] came out against us.”

The Under Armour spokesman said Curry was on a media tour at the time and the New York judge found no evidence of a quid pro quo.

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