PR Trend: Reports on Reporters
It's a rare journalist who believes he's not worth knowing. But on the job reporters do sometimes pose as nullities--colorless, opinionless, and unworthy of curiosity.
A lot of news makers don't buy it. To them a reporter is a bird of prey. "CEOs and top executives are now open game for journalists working on hard-hitting investigative stories," warned Public Relations Journal in January. Imagine trying to interview one of those CEOs. He'll ask his PR office for a full report: who you are, what axes you grind, whether you're a damn fool, whether you might even be safe to ignore.
At one time the corporate mouthpiece would have had to scramble for answers. Today the dossier the CEO wants to consult before calling you back is being loaded into computers.
PR directors throughout Chicago recently received a letter that began like this: "Is the image and reputation of your organization worth protecting for $185?
"That is the modest investment to have access to PRESS PROFILES, a new confidential evaluation of columnists, reporters, and editors representing national and local media, including the trade press for key industries. All evaluations are submitted by executives in our field who have had direct experience with these journalists."
This invitation was sent out by the high-profile Chicago firm of Werle & Brimm Ltd. It was signed by the president, Chuck Werle, a fellow of the Public Relations Society of America, whose partner, David Brimm, is president of the Publicity Club of Chicago. Werle's letter explained that the Werle & Brimm "data bank" would be sustained and enlarged by subscribers' evaluations. Enclosed was an evaluation form. Quick and easy to fill out, it grades reporters from one to ten in these categories:
"Accuracy; Verifying information, quotes; Knowledge of subject/industry (industry covered _____); Interviewing skills; Balanced reporting; Writing ability; Integrity (honoring release dates, unexpected questions, etc.); Personality (outgoing? sense of humor? reserved? etc.)."
The form's bottom-line question to PR types is, "Based on your experience, would you recommend cooperating with this journalist without qualifications?" There's space for comments.
One of those PR types sent Werle's letter along to us and then discussed it anonymously. "It just gives me the creeps," the flack said. "But maybe this is just formalizing what PR people already do. We all keep mental notes on reporters, and when we get together we may trade comments. But it's different when someone I know and trust tells me 'Joe Schmoe invents quotes, so watch out.' But the idea of subscribing to a data base! I don't know who's putting the information in there. I just think the possibilities of smearing somebody are kind of tremendous. And the questions--it's kind of like a dating service! 'Outgoing personality'? 'Sense of humor'?"
Not that this flack doubted for a second that the personality profile is the wave of the future.
Werle told us he's spent three years fine-tuning his concept, and he and his staff, other colleagues, and charter subscribers have already stashed evaluations of more than 200 journalists in his data bank. What about those "unexpected questions"? we wondered; no doubt they infuriate CEOs, but among journalists they're a mark of competence.
"There was a classic case of my own," he replied. "I worked for a corporation, Leo Burnett, where the president was getting an award at the meeting of the national association. Business Week covered. The bureau chief said he wanted to interview the president about the award, and we set up a meeting. His second question was, "I'm doing a big story on Procter & Gamble, and I'd like information on what it's like being an ad agency for Procter & Gamble. The president looked at me like--'What the hell did you get me into!' We never discussed our clients.
"In the category for integrity, [that reporter] would get a one at most. That's uncalled for. If it's an unexpected question related to the general theme of what you want to discuss, that's OK."
What's a number ten personality? we asked Werle. "A person who's easygoing and relaxed, has a sense of humor, and is willing to accept information," he said. "If the CEO, for example, says 'I want to give you some background information,' and a reporter says 'I don't have time for that. Let's stick to the subject matter . . . '"
But some CEOs are busy people themselves, we reminded him.
So they are, said Werle. "Personality should have the least importance, but everybody said they wanted to have something in there about personality."
Werle's Press Profiles, which can be faxed, phoned, modemed, or messengered, are not the modern flack's only tool for use in an emergency. In Washington, D.C., a firm called CARMA International has developed software that measures journalism against client interests. While chatting with the reporter who's on the line asking for an interview, a PR officer can tap some keys and call up this meddler's--and his or her publication's--track record. "If you want to find out what was Joe Blow's position on abortion, and he's a writer for the Washington Post," explained CARMA president Albert Barr, "we can find all of the stories he's written and grade him from 0 to 100--0 being worst to the client's point of view and 100 most helpful. Remember something too. We're not tracking just news. We're tracking editorials, opinion pieces, letters to the editor."
CARMA also "red flags" breaches of its standards of fairness. If a reporter has added his personal conclusions to past news stories, or CARMA found the stories unbalanced or misrepresented by headlines or photos, the client is notified. "Let me give you an example," said Barr. "The U.S. Department of Agriculture put out a press release saying umpteen zillion pounds of tobacco were being shipped to Asia. The headline writer on a paper in Hawaii wrote a head, 'Exporting lung cancer.' The story itself was very straightforward."
And in New Jersey there's a service called Fax Profiles that, for about $50 per, will share the 1,500 bios of major journalists in its files. This fax service, less than a year old, was spun off from a biweekly newsletter.
"People panic when they get a call from a reporter, especially at a major news organization they've never dealt with before," explained Dean Rotbart, a former Wall Street Journal news editor who founded the newsletter six years ago. "The CEO says, well what do we know about this individual? For example, now pharmaceutical companies are in vogue, and reporters who cover the economy are now interested in pharmaceutical companies--reporters who aren't pharmaceutical reporters, who are Washington reporters. Nobody knows anybody. So we offer a service that says within the hour--and the truth is within ten minutes usually--we'll provide you with information that before you'd have to call around to get."
Such as--education, past jobs, names of supervisors. Also hobbies and clubs ("What I describe as our icebreaker section," said Rotbart). And the spouse's job. And the names and ages of the children.
We won't go quite so far as to say a lot of this information is nobody's business. But at the risk of appearing truculent--a one on Chuck Werle's personality scale--we'd defend to the death our right to prefer to keep it to ourselves. But what do we know? "There are a few exceptions but 98 percent of the bios we have we got directly from the reporters," Rotbart told us.
Women's Voices at the Sun-Times
The seven-member Sun-Times editorial board that Mark Hornung took over a month ago was too small, too male, and too white. Hornung told us he wanted to add a couple of people--"both preferably female, at least one of them preferably minority"--and this week he did.
Hornung announced that Michelle Stevens, who's black, and Cindy Richards, who isn't, join the board on March 15. Stevens was assistant editor of the now defunct At Home section; Richards writes the weekly "Working Women" column, and her specialties are workplace issues and health care. If they work out, in a few months' time each will start writing columns as well as editorials.
"Cindy is left of center in her philosophy, and Michelle is quite conservative in her philosophy," Hornung says. "She has even less faith than I do in government's ability to make peoples' lives better, and Cindy feels the other way about government initiatives. And there's a nice balance."
Richards checked out. We asked her about health-care reform, and she said she doesn't object to government mandates that require companies to offer health care. "I think that'll be a lively debate in editorial-board meetings," she predicted. "I don't think the market will force companies to do this. Unless they can bring costs under control, I think the market will prohibit a lot of companies from doing this."
But if Stevens is conservative, it's just up to a point. The culture of dependency distresses her, and last summer, during temporary duty on the editorial board, she wrote an editorial defending a state program that requires some public-aid recipients to improve their reading skills or lose their benefits. "How much more coddling must they get?" said her editorial. And she told us, "There's a whole generation of people on welfare, and their parents, grandparents, and all their friends are on it. There's a defeatism that 'I can't better myself and the government owes me this money.'"
But Stevens, like Richards, is prochoice, and she hasn't admired a Supreme Court justice since Thurgood Marshall retired. She said, "I think I can add another voice to what has been a little bit dry, conservative editorial page."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.