Earlier this week, Alex Williams at Pew Research filed a report on the discrepancies between reporters and the public relations specialists whose job it is to pitch those reporters. By examining Bureau of Labor Statistics data, he found that last year, 43,630 people were employed as journalists, up against 202,530 people working in PR (and for every dollar publicists made, reporters were making $0.65). Those numbers are up sharply: In 2004, there were 3.2 publicists for every working reporter. Now the ratio is up to 4.6 people working in PR for every reporter out there.
This is good news for anyone concerned about the basic robustness of the publicity industry. But it also makes publicists’ jobs harder to do. More of them are competing for fewer reporters’ attention. To try to cut through the clutter, some (though by no means all) publicists take unfortunate advantage of tragic events, occasionally in ways that exhibit a shocking lack of taste and good sense.
These pitches are a common joke among journalists. But even I and some of the reporters I know were stunned by the boldness of some of the releases or offers of interviews that came through the transom in the wake of Robin Williams’s suicide.
A number of my colleagues forwarded me a pitch from Wilks Communications offering up “Cyber security expert” Steve Weisman as a source. The hook? “Robin Williams’ tragic death leaves consumers at high risk of identity theft. The 1.2 billion people already endangered from the massive Russian hacking just got more vulnerable as identity thieves lure curious citizens with links promising details about Robin Williams.”
One reader forwarded me an e-mail from LeadingThinkers suggesting that this would be a great time for reporters to talk to the writer Joyce Maynard, essentially on the grounds that we are all having a lot of thoughts and feelings.
“If anyone knows how to talk about the elephant in the living room, it’s Joyce,” the e-mail suggests. “Whether it’s a novel about a teenager whose mother died on 9/11, coming to terms with the legacy of an alcoholic parent, detailing the ugly truth about her relationship with J.D. Salinger or sharing the painful personal story of her experience adopting and then relinquishing custody of two Ethiopian girls, Joyce has never shied away from the facts at hand.”
I suppose the pitch acts as further proof of Maynard’s — or at least her representative’s — willingness to forge forward without concern for how anyone might react.
Lots of e-mails offering up physicians who treat or research mental illness landed in my inbox.
Most of these were relatively benign, even if the publicists were not exactly exerting themselves to draw clear connections between what is known about Williams’s mental health issues and their clients’ specialties. But one that came to me via Samantha Rollins, the news editor at the Week, stood out. X Factor Digital Marketing wanted her to consider talking to clinical psychologist Dr. Bart Rossi, who, “although he has not treated Robin Williams or can definitely determine what happened,” is apparently eager to declare that Williams “most likely had a longstanding personality disorder.”
Not all of these pitches are necessarily terrible — a broader version of the identity theft pitch, drawing on more examples, and pushed out after a more decorous interval might have been a story I was interested in writing. But it rarely seems to occur to folks that patience might serve them and their clients better (as would more targeted pitches).
And publicists are hardly the only people prone to draw tenuous connections and to show serious lapses in taste when processing and analyzing a tragedy as part of their jobs.
Maureen Dowd has a perfectly fine explanation for why she associates Robin Williams with the late journalist Michael Kelly, but I simply do not believe that this particular memory always leads her to contemplate Hillary Clinton and the war in Iraq. Rush Limbaugh, who is normally impervious to criticism, has attempted to amend his remarks drawing a causal relationship between “leftist” politics and Williams’s suicide. I received 15 e-mails from NBC News or NBC News publicists trying to get me to write about the network’s coverage of Williams’s death.
The examples of PR pitches that landed in my inbox succeeded at half of a publicist’s job: They cut through the noise. But the harder half is just as important. When sending out a pitch, you should think about how a signal might be transformed by context and what it might look like in a journalist’s inbox.