MEDIA GOSSIP: Media Roundup - Learning to switch the rumor mill on- and off again

Once found only in supermarket tabloids, gossip has found a place

in mainstream media outlets. David Ward examines the symbiotic

relationship gossip columnists have with PR pros.



Somewhat lost amid the coverage following the September 11 terrorist

attacks was a celebrity rumor that singer/actress Whitney Houston had

died, either in the attacks or by other means. This gossip spread under

the media radar for several days before finally surfacing on radio

programs and in internet chat rooms. Eventually, Houston's publicist was

forced to issue a strong denial of what was reported in many

newspapers.



Gossip, whether passed around the office or across the globe, has been

around as long as civilization itself, and gossip writers have been

putting items in print since the means to do so were invented. The job

of the gossip media is not only to pass along what tidbits of

information they do uncover, but also to separate fact from fiction,

often with little to go on other than a single source and some gut

instinct.



"I think that gossip is much harder reporting than news," says Jeannette

Walls, author and gossip columnist for MSNBC.com. "It's much tougher to

check stories, so you have to judge the credibility of your source, and

very often you're going to get denials."



While there's been an explosion of gossip on business and politics,

traditionally, the craft has been focused on showbiz celebrities.

"Columnists like Liz Smith love the celebrity hook, and it's good to

know which celebrities they adore," says Julie Dennehy, president of

Boston-based Dennehy Public Relations. "You have to read all the

columnists regularly to find out which ones they're partial to."



Dennehy also stresses that unlike hard news, gossip writers are very

subjective - not just with the items they report, but also with the

sources they use. A great rapport between a PR person and gossip

columnist can make the difference in not only whether a client is

mentioned, but in some cases, the tone of the coverage. "I try to

respond to them immediately when they call with a request because that

really helps to build a relationship," she says. "It's very helpful if

you can deliver when they ask you to get them a photo on short

notice."



In fact, the link between PR and the gossip media is so strong, there is

some debate over exactly how much gossip writing is actually spoon-fed

from publicists, and how much is the result of hard reporting. While

Walls says that she only occasionally gets successfully pitched by PR

firms, PR pros insist that the bulk of the items that appear in gossip

columns are put there by agencies.



That is especially true in major media markets. "Their job is to get to

know you as well, so they do tend to go out a lot, and are very

approachable," says Susan MacTavish Best of San Francisco-based Best

PR.



The army behind the writer



By and large, the bigger the gossip columnist, the larger the staff

behind them. With top gossip columnists, PR professionals say they end

up dealing exclusively with a writer's assistants, whose jobs consist of

filtering calls, evaluating tips, and routinely contacting concierges

and maitre d's to find out who's checked in or dined out where. But that

can vary depending on the media outlet and the journalist. "Liz Smith is

a great example," says Dean Mastrojohn, senior account executive with

The MWW Group. "She's got a huge staff behind her. I've never spoken to

her directly, but I've spoken many times to her people. On the other

hand, Richard Johnson, who writes (the New York Post's) Page Six, I've

spoken to many times directly."



Nicholas Wolaver, account executive with Atlanta-based The Headline

Group, says that most cities have numerous opportunities for placing

items around his area. He points to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's

Peach Buzz column as a good example of a regional column, combining

tidbits of information about Atlanta events with national

celebrity-oriented wire stories that are localized whenever possible.

"Sometimes the paper can't dedicate a full story to an event, but they

do see some newsworthiness to it, and this is where they fit it in,"

Wolaver says. "Jane Fonda is a local celebrity in Atlanta, and any time

one of her charities does something, Peach Buzz is where it's going to

appear."



But pitching gossip writers can be a tricky business. Bob Rinklin,

managing director of the New Jersey-based Bender-Hammerling Group, says,

"They really don't want to be one of 20 people that get the item. You

also want to give them the ability to personalize it if they can. If you

look at columnists like Cindy Adams and Liz Smith, they try to create

the sense that they just picked up the phone and there was Liz Taylor on

the other end telling them something."



Bender-Hammerling recently placed an item with Smith on behalf of the

website Genealogy.com that traced Academy Award-winning actor William

Holden's lineage back to George Washington. The piece, which mentioned

Genealogy.com by name, was picked up by numerous papers that carry

Smith's column, including Newsday, the New York Post, and the San

Francisco Chronicle.



"Genealogy.com was very impressed that Liz mentioned their company in

her column," says Rinklin. "They're always interested in getting off the

genealogy and personal technology pages and into other sections, and

they have done so a couple of times by doing these family trees of

celebrities."



While no one has the clout that Hedda Hopper, Luella Parsons, and Walter

Winchell had in their day, columnists such as Smith, Walls, Johnson,

Adams, Jeannie Williams, Neal Travis, and syndicated writers George Rush

and Joanna Malloy do command a national presence. Joining them are

several newcomers who focus on a younger club-centric gossip scene in

various cities, including Heidi Siegmund Cuda of the Los Angeles Times

and Hayley Kaufman of The Boston Globe's Go! column.



Gossip spreads its wings



In the past few years, gossip journalism has leapt off the lifestyle

pages and into the business, technology, and even the political

sections, and some of the credit for this can be tied to the rise of the

internet.



"The definition of what is gossip and what is news has gotten very

fluid," notes Walls. "Monica Lewinsky is an example of a gossip item out

of control that ate up the entire news section."



Business gossip was once limited to news in The Wall Street Journal's

Heard on the Street column, but that segment has expanded with the

internet.



Now, in addition to business gossip reporters such as the New York

Post's Chris Nolan, there are websites such as FuckedCompany.com and

Fatbabies.



com. Sites such as these are usually run by only a handful of people who

lack both the resources and the inclination to check out each and every

anonymous tip that's sent in. The same goes for political gossip, where

a site such as The Drudge Report continues to have a following, despite

some egregious errors that have resulted in libel action.



"(The sources) are often people with access to information - but not

necessarily the whole story. They are posting what they hear in the

restroom or the hallways," notes Bill Linn, president of Linn PR. The

problem, Linn says, is that a client has little control over what's

being said about them or its impact. "I have clients that are publicly

traded who are telling me this analyst just read something about them on

Fatbabies," he says.



As tempting as it can be to try to contact the offending site and set

the record straight, most PR professionals say the best course of action

is to simply monitor what's being said. "We absolutely, in all cases,

advise our clients not to respond," Linn says. "The way to give the site

credibility is to respond to it."



WHERE TO GO

NEWSPAPERS: USA Today; New York Post; New York Daily News; The Boston

Globe; Boston Herald; Atlanta Journal-Constitution; Los Angeles Times;

San Francisco Chronicle; The Wall Street Journal

MAGAZINES: People; Star!; Entertainment Weekly; The National Enquirer;

Vanity Fair; Interview; Premiere; Time; Newsweek; New York; Los Angeles;

TV Guide; Hollywood Reporter; Variety; Jezebel

TV & RADIO: Larry King Live; Extra; Entertainment Tonight; Access

Hollywood; E! Entertainment Network; CNN Entertainment News

INTERNET: IMDB.com; CNN.com; MSNBC.com; Jim Romenesko's Mediagossip.com

(at poynter.org/ medianews); FuckedCompany.com; Fatbabies.com;

Inside.com; The Drudge Report; Ted Casablanca's The Awful Truth (at

eonline.com/gossip)



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