Chances are, if you're writing a magazine article or a newspaper feature, you'll deal with a publicist, or flack, as journalists not-so-lovingly call them. It's not just celebrities who have publicists. Most businesses, universities, hospitals and nonprofit groups also have public relations people or hire PR agencies.
Publicists get paid to generate positive stories. That's why, whether you're a freelancer or a staff writer, once publicists understand that you write about a specific topic, you'll hear from them regularly with new product announcements, hirings, events, anniversaries and so forth. Many times, these are legitimate stories. Just remember publicists also get paid to minimize negative publicity and aren't as likely to volunteer information when quarterly profits are down or the CEO gets the boot. (Unless, of course, the new CEO was named at the same time. Then they'll want you to write it from that angle.)
Another caveat: If you aren't paying attention, even the most helpful publicist can lead you astray. Writers want the truth, warts and all. Publicists want a positive story and have no interest in publicizing warts. Don't count on them to volunteer such information. It's reasonable, however, to ask them such questions and to expect responses from them or their clients.
That said, nearly all the publicists with whom I've dealt have been helpful and professional. Publicists either already know everything you want to know, or they can find out. Their job is to work with the media; they are — in a sense — expecting your phone call.
Since they're expecting your call, it's generally a good idea to start by contacting the publicist, rather than going directly to the senior director, vice president or manager with whom you want to speak. Indeed, if you try those people first and you don't already know them, they'll often decline to be interviewed until you've spoken with the publicist. To find out who that is, check news releases on the company's Web site; see who's been quoted as a company spokesman in other articles; or just call the switchboard and ask to be connected with the public relations or media information office.
An exception can be made with universities. Some colleges have incredibly attentive public relations staffs, but I've found that most schools are so immense that the publicists really don't have time to devote to every writer. If you just need an interview and you know who you want to talk to, it's usually quicker to go straight to the source.
The good side of publicists
Publicists often do what you could do, only quicker. When I was writing a story about San Juan Capistrano Mission for Historical Traveler a couple years back, the mission publicist arranged interviews with some docents, one of whom gave me a personal tour of the mission.
She also came up with a not-so-obvious interview. I pressed her to think of somebody who had been around the mission for a long, long time. She gave me Paul Arbiso, who was ringing the mission's bells. He was only 38, but he was born in the town and was the grandson of a man who had been ringing the bells since 1923. Arbiso was also the mission's maintenance man, and if I had been wandering around the church on my own, I wouldn't have had a clue to ask him for an interview.
Of course, if you do everything through the publicist, you'll risk having a story like every other writer's. I tracked down a botanist in Kentucky who had done research on San Juan Capistrano's agriculture. I also found a man in Northern California who had been studying San Juan Capistrano's swallows for 25 years.
Similarly, a publicist went the extra mile for me with a Kiwanis Magazine article about staying healthy in airports. I'd read a newspaper item about the first man to have his life saved, inflight, by a defibrillator. I couldn't find him, though I knew the town in which he lived and his business. So, I contacted the publicist for the hospital that treated him. She couldn't give me his phone number, but made repeated calls to track him down. After a couple of days, I got the interview.
The bad side of publicists
Sometimes, publicists forget that they're not the story. Life once assigned me an article about a zoo. The morning the photographer and I arrived, one of the publicists announced we would get access to only the penguin house and the children's zoo in our weeklong visit. I couldn't interview people without literally feeling her breath on the nape of my neck, and she was constantly in danger of strolling into the photographer's shots.
Finally, I went over her head. The zoo president allowed us to work with another publicist, one who was perfect in every way. He gave us a comfortable berth in which to work, while still accompanying us throughout the zoo, a reasonable request. Many publicists want to be present during interviews, be it in person or on the phone. I always agree, though there's a third-wheel feel whenever you have three people in a room and only two are talking. Generally, if they interject, it isn't to combat the writer — it's just to clarify a point.
Sometimes, however, it's a publicist's job to keep the client out of the news, or out of particular news outlets. As a staff writer at BOP, a teen magazine, the editor asked me to interview Edward Furlong, best known for his part in Terminator 2. I knew the publicist wasn't going to grant me the interview; Furlong and crew had long had their fill of the teenybopper audience.
But I called, made the request to the publicist's assistant, and heard in the background: "$@#%&, let me talk to him." The next moments are blurry, but I remember being yelled at, lectured at length and there may have been something about my children's children being forbidden to interview her client.
Don't take it personally if this happens to you. Move on and interview other people about your subject. Call again shortly before you submit the article. The publicist or client may have reconsidered, especially if they've heard from the others you've interviewed about how professionally you conduct yourself.
After the interviews
When the interviews are over, your relationship with the publicist will have just begun — if you're smart. Often, publicists are the quickest way to verify information or clear up an editor's questions.
"Fact-checking is certainly something we're most happy to do," says Dariel Curren, at Development Counsellors International, New York, which specializes in economic development and tourism marketing.
She says she treats all writers the same, from the veterans to those just starting out: "You can even use us for background information if you're doing research for a potential story. Just be honest and tell us, 'I don't have an assignment,' [or] 'I'm working on an idea.'"
But don't abuse the relationship. Entertainment publicists in particular are besieged by writers. As publicist Peter Seligman of Dan Klores Associates puts it, "I really don't appreciate reporters who call me up and ask me questions they could get on their own, without me.... If you're doing a story on Jay Leno, it's not that hard to go to the Internet and get all the background." Seligman's clients include Leno and the entire cast of ABC's Spin City; he also does crisis PR for boxer Mike Tyson.
Even if the publicist is cooperative, don't get lazy; always double-check. Most publicists know how to spell their client's name, but some don't. For example, universities may have hundreds of professors and assistant teachers on staff. Just be glad the publicist told you who to talk to, and had their phone number.
After you've conducted your interviews and done your fact-checking, it's time to do a little public relations yourself. Be diplomatic if a publicist asks to see the article before it appears. Most publications don't allow that, but explain the policy to the publicist rather than just abruptly saying no. In some cases, reading back direct quotes to the interviewee or the publicist to check accuracy is appropriate; sometimes, it's not. Make sure you haven't made any promises you can't fulfill.
Finally, remember that publicists really like to see a copy of the article when it appears. That's part of the way they justify their existence to their employer or their client. Realistically, that can get to be more trouble than it's worth if you're working on six stories at any given moment. But do let the publicist know when the article will be published, and keep them apprised of any schedule changes. Treat a publicist with some respect and dignity, and you'll find the favor returned when you most need it.
Geoff Williams is a features writer for the Cincinnati Post. His freelance articles have appeared in Entrepreneur, Entertainment Weekly and Biography.
More About Publicists
Public Relations Society of America, 33 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003-2376, tel. 212/995-2230. Web site www.prsa.org
Canadian Public Relations Society, Suite 720, 220 Laurier Ave. W., Ottawa, Ontario, K1P 5Z9, tel. 613/232-1222, Web site www.cprs.ca