In defense of the expense-account lunch

I went out to lunch today. Really. Even as you’ve read this week about the slashing and shrinking inside my company, Time Inc. , and across the magazine industry (even Conde Nast, the proud, privately-held protector of privilege and perks is axing), I have to eat. I have to schmooze. My job depends upon it.

Allow me to defend the expense-account lunch. Here are my rules of (lunchtime) engagement, honed over 24 years at Fortune (I survived!) as I’ve watched how powerful people climb higher than I have:

1. Get out of the office. You won’t reach any pinnacle of power–the top job in your company, stardom in your industry, a great gig–by eating at your desk. Today, more than ever, power is about making connections. While information is a commodity (anyone can get it by going online), real knowledge comes come from sharing ideas. In my quarter-century at Fortune, how many times have I eaten at my desk? Once.

2. Find neutral territory. While I don’t indulge my expense account daily (I often eat in the caf, alone), I court key contacts on neutral ground–not their turf, not mine. Neutral territory equalizes parties. My best spot: Michael’s, the media-honcho mecca in midtown Manhattan. If not for lunch over Michael’s Nicoise salad, I swear, I would not have scored exclusive “gets” for Fortune such as profiles of Martha Stewart post-prison, hedge-fund investor and Sears Holdings chairman Eddie Lampert, and General Electric bosses Jeff Zucker and Dick Ebersol. Not to mention countless stories for Fortune‘s annual Most Powerful Women issue.

3. Give and Take. To win anything that’s hard to get, I’ve learned, it pays to share something important that you don’t want the other person to pass on. Trust the person. Then they feel compelled to trust you. The hitch: You can’t do this by email or phone. Meet face to face to read their character. Build the trust over lunch. Then, never break it. For a journalist like me, this doesn’t mean writing a puff piece. It means playing fair.

4. Redefine your power. Real power is personal power, as I noted in my first blog post the day we launched Postcards last June. The concept is more potent now that we’re in treacherous times: Real power is the power you have even if you lose your big job or lofty position. Use the lunch out to build your network and maybe the lifeline you thought you’d never need.

5. Enter the conversation. When Hearst Magazines president Cathie Black, my lunch-mate one day at Michael’s, told me this advice about blogging, I didn’t realize how valuable it would be. Black is no blog expert, she admits, but one bonafide expert who visited Hearst told the execs there that the most successful bloggers don’t start conversations; they pick up on the buzz out there already. And they chime in. So, as cost cuts are all the buzz in my business, I’ll chime in: We’ll know things have really turned ugly when people stop meeting for lunch.

P.S. Michael’s GM Steve Millington, in his Guest Post, recollects his most nerve-wracking day a few years ago. But his story has relevance today. One character in it is Vanity Fair writer Michael Wolff, who’s kicking up controversy with his soon-to-be-released bio of News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News. Moreover, in a lousy economy, it’s more critical than ever to love your best customers–as Millington knows how to do.

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