All of us in the PR world are always scheming how to “secure coverage” for our clients. While the news merits of a specific pitch – and how that pitch is made – are and forever will remain the best way for a story pitch to be successful, it certainly doesn’t hurt to build and maintain effective working relationship with reporters.
Some might say those relationships are essential, but I wouldn’t go that far. I’ve done media relations work on Capitol Hill, for publicly traded companies and, through my agency, for more than a dozen corporate and non-profit clients. Relationships with “beat” reporters absolutely help, but no journalism pro is going to write or produce a news story just because they like you.
Nevertheless, there are some circumstances – and some reporters – with whom a working relationship can go a long way in gaining a benefit of the doubt when a story is legitimate but could just as easily be ignored.
This benefit is especially true among that vanishing breed known as “columnists.” A professional precursor to bloggers, these individuals tend to toil for major dailies, possess a dedicated piece of newsprint real estate, and have built a cadre of trusted sources over the decades. Helping one of these columnists out can be key in your ability to add value to your client, whether you are in house or at a PR agency.
Twenty-five years this month, I helped a reporter out. I drove a reporter – specifically a columnist from The Washington Post – to the airport less than three hours after a major earthquake.
The earthquake was a “big one,” as those things go. It was the “Northridge Earthquake” of January 1994 and I was in the LA area for two reasons on that early Monday morning when it struck. First, the Cable ACE Awards – a “thing” in those days, prior to cable programming being eligible for Emmy Awards – had occurred the previous evening and, even more important, the Television Critics’ Association Tour event was being held over a period of three days at the Huntington Hotel in Pasadena (now a Ritz-Carlton).
I was head of corporate communications for Discovery Communications, Inc. at the time, a privately held company then primarily known as parent of Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel. I was fast asleep at 4:37 AM Pacific Time, when I was jolted out of bed by the violent shaking of my room, an “effect” proven to be true by the TV set in my room rolling out of its relatively snug spot in the armoire, so much so that it was literally hanging by its various wires.
While I had lived in California earlier in my career, I had never experienced an earthquake. Sensing it might be a good idea to get out of my room, I tossed on some workout clothes (at least they didn’t make the trip from DC out west for nothing) and opened my door at the same time as my neighbor across the hall – Richard Huff, TV columnist for the New York Daily News.
Richard and I confirmed to one another what was painfully obvious: there had been an earthquake. We proceeded to look out each other’s third-floor windows. My view was of little use; it revealed only a darkened courtyard. Richard’s view was much informative as his room looked out on a small valley filled with homes and places of business, cris-crossed by roads. There were some lights on in the valley when we first looked, but in a matter of moments they began to flicker, until nearly all of them were extinguished. It was still well before sunrise, so the growing darkness was noticeable and a bit scary.
What did I do next? I volunteered to Richard that I would go down to the lobby to check out what was going on. (And I didn’t think I was winning any brownie points with this columnist by doing that; it was a matter of fight or flight – in my case the latter – kicking in.)
This is when things really got interesting. The first person I saw in the lobby was John (Jack) Carmody AKA Captain Airwaves, legendary TV columnist for The Washington Post, who was seated rather forlornly in a wingback leather chair across from the front desk. As was his usual wont, Jack was dressed quite formally, in dark suit, white shirt, and tie, topped by a long raincoat. A hat was balanced on his lap and his arms were tightly crossed, in a manner that accentuated his unhappiness.
“I’m glad you’re OK,” I said, quite innocently really, as at that point I wasn’t sure if people had been hurt in their rooms, or if other buildings in the hotel compound – where Jack may have been staying – were more badly damaged.
“Who says I’m OK?” Jack growled back. “I’m supposed to fly to Seattle this morning to visit my mother. My driver has canceled on me and my flight is probably canceled anyway.”
“I’ll take you to the airport,” I said immediately. I had a rental car for various reasons.
“Really? You don’t have to do that, it might be dangerous out there,” Jack responded.
“Well, we’ll start to drive out of the hotel property and, if we see any trees or power lines down, we’ll just turn around and come back,” I said.
“OK, if you say so,” Jack grunted. He was not a man known for his warmth, but I had “lunched” many times with Jack in the previous few years, so I understood there was a heart inside his gruff exterior.
I told Jack to wait while I ran up to my room to grab my wallet and a sweatshirt. While up there, I used the phone, which was working, to call valet parking, which seemed to be in state of shock when I asked if I could have my car brought up to the main hotel entrance. I also knocked on Richard Huff’s door to tell him my Carmody plans. He shook his head and said, “good luck.”
I returned to the lobby by foot (as the elevators had now stopped working) and grabbed Jack and his bags for the short trek to the circle drive out front. We were surprised to see a group of about 10 or 12 people, in various stages of sleepwear, huddled around a transistor radio, tuned to a news radio station bursting with staccato reports on the earthquake. Among the listeners was the actor Sam Waterston, clad in hotel robe, presumably personal pajamas and, as far as I can remember, dress shoes with no socks (long before that became a thing). I am not sure why he was at the hotel, but it was likely to promote some sort of upcoming cable television drama that he was starring in.
This group of people stared at us warily as my rental car approached. Once we loaded the trunk with Jack’s luggage, one lady shouted: “be careful!” “We will,” Jack said in a monotone voice that barely registered, especially through the few inches that were open in his passenger-side window. Turning to me, Jack added: “Busy body,” referring to the kind woman who was simply expressing her concern.
Now we were off. I again promised to Jack that we would turn around if we saw anything remotely dangerous. By this time, there was enough light from the soon-to-be-rising sun to allow us to see that there was no apparent damage from the quake on the streets leading from the hotel to the freeway.
At this point, we still planned to head to LAX, which as anyone who lives or has visited LA knows, is quite a hike from Pasadena, at least 45 minutes in zero traffic and usually more than an hour away. A radio report informed us that “all LA-area airports are open,” but that flight delays were expected.
It was the phrase “all LA-area airports” that led me to make what turned out to be a critical recommendation to Jack. I knew that he was to be on a non-stop flight from LA to Seattle, but I suggested the following: “Hey, since Burbank Airport is a lot closer, why don’t we drive there, confirm that ‘all airports are open,’ and see if your flight is still leaving from LAX and/or ask if there any alternative flights to Seattle?”
By this point, Jack had surrendered any and all gruffness in his persona. He was a sweet man under my wing and said gently, “If you think so, that sounds fine to me.” Remarkably, the Burbank airport entrance was nearly upon us and, at least back then, the view from the highway afforded us the chance to see that the lights were on – literally – at the airport, both on the runways and at the terminal.
Along the entire way, there was minimal traffic, with very few cards on the road period. There was even less traffic on the entryway to Burbank Airport, which appeared to be nearly deserted, save for the few people we could see from the curb as we approached the terminal for United Airlines. I told Jack I would wait by the curb in the car, while he went in to check out his flight options.
The extra spring in his step that Jack had on his way in to the airport turned into several extra springs, constituting an official jaunt, on Jack’s way back to the car. While constitutionally unable to have a bright smile, Jack nevertheless was grinning from ear to ear as he told me, “there is a flight leaving for San Francisco in 20 minutes, with a layover before another flight to Seattle. I am on that flight!”
I was almost as excited as Jack was. I bounded out of the driver’s seat, popped the trunk and handed Jack his garment bag, suitcase and briefcase. Thrilled at this development, Jack abandoned any pretense of formality, and gave me a big hug, the first and only one I ever received from him. He looked me straight in the eye and said: “You are my earthquake angel.”
I knew that Jack was a devout Catholic, so while his comment was light-hearted, it was not made lightly. He did believe that “an angel,” personified by an unshaven PR guy in sweats, was delivering him out of town, so that he would be able to visit his elderly mother.
For the rest of his career, Jack saluted me in person and via e-mail as “My earthquake angel.” It was a title I wore proudly. I haven’t told anyone about that moniker in at two decades, since I spoke about it with mutual friends at Jack’s memorial service, which was sadly not many years after the earthquake, and less than one year after he retired.
And yes, during the few years after the earthquake in which Jack continued to write his column, my pitches to Jack were mostly well-received. Despite my best efforts, however, Jack had no interest in learning more about Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge, even though it was being produced by a very dynamic Brit named Mark Burnett, future creator of Survivor and The Apprentice (and future subject of another “Tale from the PR Front.”)