By Mark Alpert
I learned about PR twenty-six years ago when I was a reporter for Fortune magazine. For most of 1989 I was a prime target for the Great American Public Relations Machine.
I’d been working for the magazine for about a year when the editors assigned me to write the Fortune People column. Every two weeks I had to fill a page-and-a-half feature with entertaining tidbits about the movers and shakers of Corporate America. The other reporters and writers at Fortune passed some of the tidbits to me, and I got a lot of story ideas from simply reading the newspapers. And every week I received dozen of story proposals from PR firms, many of them sent in the mail as pitch letters or press releases and some delivered very earnestly over the phone by young, eager publicists.
As I sifted through all the proposals I quickly learned the first important lesson of publicity: Before sending a story proposal to any newspaper or magazine, you should do a little research. Read a few issues of the publication to make sure your idea at least comes close to the kind of story that the periodical actually publishes.
The Fortune People column, at least when I wrote it, was all about the titans of Big Business, the chief executives of GM and Ford and IBM and all the other Fortune 500 companies. When pressed, I would also write about loudmouths such as Donald Trump. And whenever I got the chance I’d try to insert some wacky outliers into the column. For example, I had a nostalgic weakness for writing about celebrities from the Seventies, the era when I was an impressionable teenager. I gushed like a schoolboy when I interviewed Olivia Newton-John, who started a chain of clothing stores in the 1980s that later went bankrupt. (The cutline that ran under Olivia’s photo in the column: LET’S GET PROFITABLE!) I also rushed over to the Plaza Hotel one day so I could interview Seventies tennis champ Björn Borg, who was starting his own fashion label at the time. There were some reports in the tabloid press back then that Borg had made a suicide attempt, and I felt a journalistic duty to ask him if the reports were true, but I just couldn’t bring myself to pose the question. The closest I came was: “Björn, are you happy now?” He gave me a bleak look, an expression of pure Scandinavian despair. Then he replied, in a dead monotone, “Yes, I’m very happy.”
So, if any publicist had taken the time to peruse my columns, they’d have gotten a pretty good idea what I liked to write to about. But practically no one did this. The young eager PR people from Hill & Knowlton and Burson-Marsteller just kept sending me their pitch letters and press releases and calling me all day long, proposing stories that were completely inappropriate for the column. The envelopes piled so high on my desk that eventually I stopped opening them. They went straight into the trash. And I bet that’s what still happens to most pitch letters today, although the vast majority of pitches are emails now and the trash bin is virtual.
Worse, I began to suspect that some of the more experienced PR people were fully aware of the futility of their efforts but didn’t really care. One time a publicist invited me to have lunch at Aquavit with him and one of his clients. I told the publicist there was no way in hell I’d ever write about the client, but that didn’t deter him; he urged me to come to lunch anyway. So I said yes. I’d always wanted to have lunch at Aquavit, and I couldn’t have afforded it on my own dime. During lunch I listened politely to the client’s spiel while thoroughly enjoying the restaurant’s exquisite seafood. And it occurred to me that this was a weirdly dysfunctional situation, because everyone at the table was happy for a different reason. I was happy because I got a delicious lunch for free; the publicist was happy because he’d impressed his client; the client was happy because he had a chance to talk to a Fortune reporter; and the waiter was happy because he was going to get a great tip. I knew that no story would come out of this lunch meeting; the publicist knew it too, and maybe the client himself suspected as much. But it didn’t matter: everyone was happy even though nothing was accomplished. It was a strange inefficiency in our capitalist economy, I thought. Even Karl Marx hadn’t foreseen it.
So now let’s talk about PR for books. The same rule applies: Before you start promoting your books to magazines or websites or TV and radio programs, you need to do a little research. Do these media outlets ever publicize books like yours? If not, pitching your book to them may be a waste of time.
Second, my journalistic experiences have made me a little wary of PR in general. I definitely appreciate all the efforts of publicists employed by book publishers; they work hard to get reviews and feature stories for the books on their lists. But I’m skeptical about the value of hiring a freelance publicist, especially for a novel. (Nonfiction books are relatively easier to promote because media outlets are more like to run stories about them.) I have to admit, my knowledge on this subject is limited; I’ve never hired a freelance publicist, and I’m not even sure how much it costs. So I’ll put the question to all TKZers: Has anyone out there ever hired a publicist to promote his or her novels? And if so, was the experience worth the money?
Postscript: I can’t resist providing a link (right here) to one of my Fortune People items. It’s a squib from June 1989 about a 42-year-old businessman in the oil industry who benefited from some powerful family connections. I spoke with him over the phone, and he seemed pleasant but forgettable. That just proves what a bad judge of character I am. (Hint: His initials are GWB.)