When it comes to publicity, there are few who can match Steven Brill, the bear-baiting, cigar-chomping, multi-job-titled top dog at Brill's Content. He seems oblivious to the irony of his self-righteous stance against journalism, whether his attacks are centered on ABC or Microsoft.
'Brill's Content purports to have high ideals,' he says, with the matter-of-fact ease of a former lawyer. 'These ideals shouldn't be confused with a reluctance to get attention. I'm a big fan of Tina Brown. She makes sure that people pay attention. If you have something to be proud of, you shouldn't be reluctant to find the best way to get people to see it.'
This is truly a journalist who appreciates the value of PR. His latest PR stunt to advance the cause is a complaint board. Posted on the magazine's AOL site, it's billed as 'the country's first media complaint board,' and it's part of Brill's 'overriding vision (to) provide a new way of leveling the playing field.'
So what's the difference between this and, say, the Internet as a whole?
Firstly, it provides an obvious focus for victims of the press, whether they're individuals, companies or organizations. It also allows those complained about to respond. But Brill is also prepared to assign reporters to the complaints, and may take an active role on behalf of a complainant.
The complaint board has been launched with a letter from Ford Motor Company that protests about a forthcoming Dateline NBC story which focuses on two suits alleging electrical faults in Ford vehicles. Ford sent the letter to two producers at Datline NBC, and copied it onto Brill's Content.
Also posted on the complaint board are a letter from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission to a Chicago magazine about a recent article concerning the CPSC's product-recall process, and one from the Center for Animal Care and Control sent to New York magazine. Both magazines wrote back at length.
'We're trying to get PR people to give us complaints. We want to know you've been wronged,' says Brill. 'We see PR as a major force to help.
If an editor is in a good mood, he may publish. The Complaint's Board means that you are no longer only at the mercy of an editor's desire to print or not to print, or to edit it so that the complaint becomes meaningless.'
Brill is a strange champion for PR professionals. A formidable journalist, businessman and lawyer, who can be witheringly rude to those who dare to question him, here he is, righting wrong on behalf of the PR industry.
But he is very willing to acknowledge the part that PR plays in good journalism.
'PR people can be very beneficial,' he says. 'PR people helped us to break the logjams for law firm reporting (at The American Lawyer).'
Not that Brill is averse to criticizing the PR community. One issue of Brill's Content focused on Microsoft's unsurprisingly large PR presence - and was met with five pages of letters in the next issue. And the latest issue gave an excellent plug to Medialink, with a story about Video News Releases.
But Brill is still happy to help out with tips on PR and publicity. His latest appearance, last week at a Magazine Publishers Association event, even saw Brill advising PR people at magazines on how to promote themselves.
And his overwhelming advice? To tell the truth.
'As good as you are, you're ultimately only going to be as good as your editors and writers. Don't oversell. Buzz is no substitute for substance. You can't get a big bang from every story.'
He also advises against time wasting. 'I can get a lot of people on the phone. But that's because they know I won't call unless it's something important,' he says.
Other tips Brill offered to the enraptured audience were:
- If you've got a scoop, and you're a monthly, go online with a portion of the story, but not all
- Make sure that the editor signs off on all press releases, and that they are available to talk when they go out. 'Sorry, no offense,' he adds.
- Not all buzz is good buzz. You can get free publicity, but it may damage your long-term reputation with readers and advertisers.
'I'm supposedly the brilliant field marshall behind the launch of this mag,' reveals Brill, in a moment of rare humility, 'but it was not that brilliant or flawless at all. We had to change the name of the magazine, six weeks before the launch, because the name 'Content' already existed.
'And at the moment we were getting an avalanche of publicity, most copies weren't on the newsstands, and we had some very angry subscribers.' But then, Brill contradicts himself. 'It was deliberate,' he adds. 'It heightened the anticipation.' Truly, when it comes to image, this man is a law unto himself.
The complaint board can be found on the Brill AOL site (keyword: Brills).
STEVE BRILL - Editor-in-chief Brill's Content
1972: Assistant to the Mayor City of New York
1974: Contributing editor and columnist New York magazine
1977: Law columnist and writer Esquire
1978: Founder and editor The American Lawyer
1982: Chairman and chief executive officer American Lawyer Media
1991: Founder, president, chief executive and editor-in-chief Courtroom Television Network
1998: Founder, chairman and editor-in-chief Brill's Content Chairman and chief executive Brill Media Ventures.