PR 101: PR 101: from hack to flack and back again

For the first three months of 1999, I took a leave of absence from my job as a reporter to handle a PR project. A musician I know was set to release his first CD on my best friend’s small record label. The project needed a publicist, and I needed a few months away from journalism after nearly 20 years. The timing seemed perfect.

For the first three months of 1999, I took a leave of absence from my job as a reporter to handle a PR project. A musician I know was set to release his first CD on my best friend’s small record label. The project needed a publicist, and I needed a few months away from journalism after nearly 20 years. The timing seemed perfect.

For the first three months of 1999, I took a leave of absence from

my job as a reporter to handle a PR project. A musician I know was set

to release his first CD on my best friend’s small record label. The

project needed a publicist, and I needed a few months away from

journalism after nearly 20 years. The timing seemed perfect.



Perfection, though, is rarely what it seems. For three months, I

experienced what I can only describe as the horrors of PR. Stop me if

you’ve heard this before: phone calls unreturned, e-mails ignored,

mailings lost or unopened rude treatment from the media.



How hard can it be?



I went into this project thinking, ’How hard can this be?’ You send out

the CD, you follow up with a phone call and an e-mail, your story gets

done. Simple. And I had a great story here. The musician, Mike Hartman,

was 23 and had cystic fibrosis, but he stubbornly refuses to die until

after - long after, hopefully - he achieves some success in the music

business. At 22, he had already worked with David Lee Roth - impressive

credentials for a kid waiting for a double-lung transplant.



If a publicist had called with this story when I was at the Indianapolis

Star, I’d have jumped at it. In fact, seven years ago when I first heard

about Mike, I did the story I wanted others in the media to write

now.



Since I have no monopoly on good news judgment, surely others would see

the merit in the story.



I also went into this job thinking that PR people are generally a

worthless lot. Sorry, but that’s media snobbery for you. Right or wrong,

journalists think that informing the public is a ’higher calling.’ And

to them, if you’re a PR pro, you’re little more than a car salesman or,

worse, a failed journalist. The problem with that attitude, of course,

is that if reporters were more open-minded and paid better attention,

they wouldn’t be so blind when a good story is pitched.



Occasionally, there is some basis in journalists’ dislike of

publicists.



The PR people who have big-name clients are arrogant when you ask for a

little access. The ones who have something to sell generally are

lazy.



They make one phone call and think they’ve done their job.



So I could do the job better, right? Wrong.



I started with a two-pronged strategy. Because the musician is a guitar

player, I would approach the guitar magazines early in the process, as

magazines have longer lead times than newspapers. Then, with the

magazine clippings in hand, I would bring Mike’s CD and story to the

newspapers, particularly the ones in his home state of Indiana.



The experience with the magazines went poorly. I put in my first call to

a magazine editor who knew Mike and was supposed to be a fan. I called,

we talked for a minute, he said he was on deadline and to call him the

next week. I did. That was two and a half months ago, and I’ve since had

many pleasant interludes with his voice mail. He has never called

back.



Another magazine writer said she couldn’t find the CD I’d sent her. She

said she would look around and if she couldn’t find it, she would call

me back. No call back. So I waited a few weeks and called her again.

When I reached her, it was as if the first call had never taken place.

She hunted for the disc while I was on the phone, found it and promised

to listen as soon as she could.



’Fine,’ I said. ’Do you mind if I call you back to see whether you plan

any coverage?’ To be polite, she expressed little enthusiasm for the

idea of my calling back.



I mailed 30 CDs. Not one person called me before I called them. And

except for my personal friends in the Indiana media, I received almost

no response.



The voice of country singer Randy Travis echoed in my ears: ’Since my

phone still ain’t ringin’/I suppose it still ain’t you.’



Was I this bad - this inattentive, this arrogant, this hard to reach -

when I was at the paper? Probably. When I was a music writer between

1990 and 1998, I received 50 discs a week and 10 or more phone calls a

day from publicists pitching me stories. I tried to take at least a

meaningful glance at everything piled on my desk, but I depended on good

publicists to pitch worthwhile stories - which is exactly what I thought

I was doing here.



Small successes, big failures



PR has to be the most discouraging work I’ve ever done. Yes, there were

some successes. I placed the story in a national rock magazine and

several newspapers.



But what sticks with me are the failures - the people who couldn’t be

bothered to call or e-mail back; the huffy treatment from writers and

editors who seemed to be saying, ’How dare you sully my phone lines with

your pathetic little story. You sicken me.’



Toward the end of three months, my frustration level got so high that I

started sending e-mails like this to people who had ignored me

previously: ’Dear X: When people don’t respond to my multiple e-mail and

phone messages, I worry that they died. Please assure me that you are

still alive.’ That tactic is rude - and I always apologized for it

afterward - but it never failed to get someone’s attention.



I could blame this on the glut of materials reporters get, or I could

criticize the arrogance of the media. But then, I wouldn’t be telling

you anything you don’t already know. But here’s a deal: if you want to

hear more, call or e-mail me. I promise I’ll respond. I’ve learned my

lesson.



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