Confessions of a veteran media specialist

Schmoozing the media is like a hunter befriending the deer he's stalking, says PR consultant Bob Brody.

Getty Images
Getty Images

We all have our dirty little secrets, at least so I suppose. And I'm no exception. So let me clear my conscience for the new year. Here, after nearly 30 years practicing public relations with a specialty in media relations, are a few of my biggest confessions.

First, I've never schmoozed the news media. Never handed out theater tickets, nor made much small talk, nor otherwise tried to blow smoke. That tack might work just fine for others. To me, it feels a little like trying to befriend the deer you're stalking in the woods.

Certainly you can become friendly with reporters and occasionally do. But media relationships are better if they evolve organically, by building mutual trust and respect. I keep these dynamics simple. Reporters want news and PR people want hits. If you give a reporter news, you'll get your hits.

To this day I generally dislike phoning reporters out of the blue, especially if it's to pass along some half-assed "news" and I'm reaching out to interrupt a stranger. But I do it. And I do it because I have to do it. Clients expect me to do it, and so do my colleagues, and so, in the end, do I. So I have no choice. Call I must, call I do, and call I always will.

It never goes away, the butterflies and the anxiety about pitching a story. Will I get a hit? How big a hit? Will the client be happy? Even after all these decades, I still get my heart in my throat picking up the phone.

The job of media specialist is an invitation to suffer mood swings all but hourly. No sooner do I get a streak going than I lapse into a slump. I'm high, then I'm low, then high again. Sometimes I suspect pitching causes bipolar disorder.

I've always played it straight. And so, I strongly suspect, have most of my PR colleagues. There, I said it. I've never spun anything, never lied to a client. About anything. Then again, have I ever devised a strategy intended to tell reporters, in effect, no need to look over here, better to look over there? Yes.

I went into public relations full-time without a solid idea of how it works or a notion about whether I could do it right or even at all. It's my second career. But eventually I learned. I learned to deal with clients and colleagues just as I had editors. I learned to develop strategies designed to build reputations. It took a lot of thought and energy and persistence. It took, in fact, almost 30 years.

In the process, I've discovered that contrary to popular public perception PR is demonstrably a force for much good. We promote health registries for 9/11 victims. We educate the public about AIDS. We spread the word about the Affordable Care Act.

By and large, PR is a reputable, even honorable profession and on a par, dare I say, with journalism. We, too, often deliver expertise, insight and savvy advice. We, too, advocate due diligence and full disclosure. We, too, value empirically established facts and, for that matter, what generally passes for reality and the truth.

Public relations at its best, after all, is the pursuit of the truth: the truth as we know it as well as the truth as we wish it to be and as we want others to perceive it. Ideally, it is never a half-truth or a whitewashed version or even a minor distortion.

Rather, the best PR people try to get at the truth no less rigorously than the novelist, the physician, the scientist, the theologian and the philosopher. Our job is to find the truth, crystallize it, and leverage the daylights out of it.

And that's the stone-cold truth.

Bob Brody is a public relations consultant in New York City and former senior vice president at Weber Shandwick, Ogilvy and Rubenstein Associates.

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