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Infocom Helps Flacks to Help Themselves
by Joel Bleifuss for PR Watch
One quick way to gauge the power of the public relations industry is to plop the National PR Pitch Book on a scale. The 1996 edition weighs four pounds and fills 706 pages. The Pitch Book bills itself as "the insider's placement guide to the most influential journalists in America." It offers the names of these journalists, all 30,000 of them, along with their addresses, phone and fax numbers.
The Pitch Book is published by the Infocom Group, which also puts out six newsletters for the "media relations industry." Media relations is a big business, and Infocom caters to the kind of organizations for which the $425 cost of a Pitch Book is small change.
The Pitch Book also provides first-person information about the PR proclivities of these 30,000 top journalists. Looking up The Nation, for example, you would learn that editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel describes her publication "as offering an alternative and idealistic vision of politics." Says Vanden Heuvel, 'We are the voice of the liberal community around the world.'"
Over at Mother Jones, senior editor Christopher Orr informs the reader that he has little use for the PR industry. "To date, I cannot recall any PR communication that has resulted in a story with us, so if you're unsure of whether to send us something, your best bet is not to." Sierra magazine's managing editor Marc Lecard asks that PR pros not send him stories about "hotels and golf courses on drained wetland."
On the mainstream media side of things, looking up the 20/20 TV news show reveals that Erin Mezquida "coordinates John Stossel's enterprise and family segments." Mezquida turn-ons are "government excesses that restrict innovative enterprise, small business and civil liberties."
And at the New York Times, Jane Brody informs the PR industry: "My files are my brains. I ought to have them insured." The pitch book gives detailed advice about how to get what you want into Brody's brain.
"It may not get used for five years [but if you're in my 'brain'] sometimes a release will trigger an idea for an article or column," she says. Her turnoffs, according to the Pitch Book, include "ear-splitting Muzak on your hold system when she calls you back."
"I find that to be one of the most irritating aspects of life as a journalist," says Brody, who apparently spends quite a bit of time phoning flacks. "If you have any sense, you'll shut that thing off."
The Infocom Group also publishes the Bulldog Reporter, a "media placement newsletter for PR professionals," which comes out 24 times a year and costs subscribers $389. BR publishes west, east and central editions, providing up-to-date information about how to pitch a story to specific journalists.
Each issue of the Bulldog Reporter features "beat charts" that provide "detailed maps of editorial responsiblities, including direct-dial and fax numbes and e-mail addresses" that help you "get instant access to the reporters covering your topic."
Those pros who wish to push softer news stories might consider a subscription to Infocom's Lifestyle Media-Relations Reporter, which provides information such as the "three things you must know about the new leadership at The New York Times 'Style' section before you pick up the phone." (With an introductory offer it costs $297 for 24 issues.) "Best of all," brags Infocom, "top management will love the increased ink and air you help them score."
If you are having no luck selling your story, the Bulldog Reporter also offers investigative services: "Stonewalled by a reporter? Let BR investigate your toughest hit. If your best pitching efforts fail with a certain editor or reporter, even when you know you have the perfect story, tell us about it--we'll investigate and you'll learn exactly how to revise your pitching strategy."
These Are Moral Questions
Perhaps the investigators also led the seminar at Infocom conferences titled "Spying on the Press--Is it ethical, is it useful?" The promo line reads: "Learn how it is done by the master spies."
Of course, there is only so much you can find out about a journalist through Bulldog Reporter or the PR Pitch Book. Nothing succeeds like getting to connect with a journalist in the flesh. For that purpose, Infocom runs a continuing series of regional day-long conferences titled "Inside the Newsroom."
In September 1996, I attended their Chicago conference to learn "how top Chicago media work with PR professionals." It was co-sponsored by PR Newswire, which bills itself as "the world's largest press communications network, providing satellite transmission of news releases--in minutes, in full text, as written--to more than 2,000 newsrooms." PR Newswire also owns "Profnet," an email service which delivers journalists' queries to customers.
My day began with a session titled "Problems in Pitching Major Business Broadcast News."
Bert Gering, senior business news producer at CNN, told the 38 public relations pros who each paid hundreds of dollars to sit in the audience to keep their pitch succinct: "It doesn't make sense for you to try to tell me why the story is important because we can figure that out in 30 seconds." He also requested that stories pitched at him have "two sides." He said, "One side of a story doesn't make a story. It makes a commercial."
A member of the audience asked: "What is the best procedure on trying to sell you on something?" Scott Cohn, a national correspondent for CNBC, responded, "Mostly it is a waste of all of our time." Another questioner chipped in: "Something in my background tells me I should tell you anyway." To which Cohn replied, "I don't want to shut you off. Shoot us a fax. We read all the faxes."
Both speakers were forthright and honest in giving their opinions and answering questions, and hence seemed rude to some of the assembled public relations people. "They were assholes," said an equally plain-speaking PR rep from a major gas station chain.
At the seminar titled, "How to Work with the Financial and Banking Press," John Schmeltzer, who covers banking and economics for the Chicago Tribune, adopted a more kindly, if condescending, tone. "Make the pitch," says Schmeltzer. "I have no problem with PR professionals."
Schmeltzer does have some "complaints," however, and hectoring his audience he ennumerated them. First, identify yourself in all communications. Second, "Don't assume we don't know anything about the companies you represent. I deal with one professional who assumes I don't know anything." Third, don't expect the Tribune to work through the PR professional if they choose to do the story.
Chris Graham, of Bloomberg Business News, added a complaint of his own: PR companies that don't keep their files updated. "It seems to me that PR firms should be checking if that person is still there," said Graham. He also advises PR professionals to develop relationships with journalists. "Get to know that person and that person will get to know you," said Graham. "Those become long-term relationships. Keep up the relationships. Keep open your relationships and keep information flowing back and forth. If you have a problem with a story. Pick up the phone and complain."
Journalists representing the major business news wire services were featured on a panel titled, "How to sell your story through the wires." According to Joe Winski, Chicago bureau chief of Bloomberg Business News, the financial market news services want public relations professionals to "think big, think global, think news that investors can use to move a company's stocks and bonds."
Kevin Pendley, Chicago Mercantile Exchange bureau chief for Bridge News (formerly Knight Ridder) told the audience: "Once you find our what our product is all about, you are probably not going to send us save the whales press releases." He also asked the pros to "help us guard against fraud. Hoaxes are real. Just understand we are working together here."
A member of the audience asked, "Where do labor unions fit within what you do?"
The price of labor, like the price of hog bellies, is significant to the financial community. Janie Gabbett, the midwest news editor at Reuters America Inc. said that labor is "important in general" since "everytime there is a strike it is a market mover."
Winski criticized the United Auto Workers union for being too "button down" and said the union is thereby "giving up spin control" and "alienating people who have a receptive ear."
At lunch I sought out the guy with the question about labor unions. He was Mark Russo of Valerie Denny Communications, a Chicago PR firm. Its founder, a former steelworker, has been doing public interest public relations since working in the press office of the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington.
Russo was attending the conference with fellow account representative Cheryl Bardoe. Russo and Bardoe worked at the 1996 Chicago Democratic Convention, flacking for, among other clients, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. As part of a campaign to get affordable housing built in the south Loop, Russo and Bardoe got national "air and ink" for the "Tree Man," a homeless man dressed up as a tree who followed Mayor Richard Daley around town during the convention asking "If I were a tree would you care about me?" (Tree planting is one of the mayor's civic passions.)
"We are a little different from the other people at the conference because we aren't product oriented, our news is really issue oriented," said Bardoe. I asked her how her work differs from what somebody would do in public relations at Philip Morris. "I am not doing the same job as somebody at Philip Morris. I don't want to put anybody down, but I think that in the public relations industry it is important to believe in the stories you are pitching. I don't think that I would be able to work for Philip Morris. The people that I represent here are the people who are the least likely to get in the media."
Bardoe found the Infocom conference valuable. "The best thing that I got was meeting the reporters who might be interested in the stories we are working on and hearing more in-depth what they are interested in," said Bardoe. For example, she has been in touch with a reporter at the CBS bureau trying to influence the welfare debate by gettiing air time for a family on welfare.
But pros like Russo and Bardoe from firms like Valerie Denny were outnumbered 100 to one at this Infocom conference. The $400 price of admission undoubtedly keeps public interest advocates from sending a representative to the conference, if they even find out about it in the first place.