Letter to the Editor

To the editor:

For 21 years I’ve held down full-time PR positions (mostly in the Midwest) with some of America’s largest companies, including 3M, U.S. Bank, Wisconsin Energy Corp. and Kohl’s Corp.

But before I entered the field, I began, along with a childhood friend, Tom Johnson, as an “intrepid cub reporter” for my college newspaper, the Minnesota Daily, in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Tom and I carved out a niche as celebrity interviewers making periodic trips to Los Angeles to interview the bigger-than-life Hollywood icons we had long admired as film buffs – legends like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, James Cagney, Lucille Ball, George Burns, Gregory Peck, Bob Hope and Frank Capra, to name just a few.

These stars were groomed in the Hollywood studio system, in which they welcomed us into their homes. If “doing press” was tedious for them they never let on and working with their publicists was done with trust, mutual respect and usually just a verbal commitment. These celebrities and publicists recognized that journalists were the conduits to their fan base.

So while Tom and I have carved out careers in public relations, we have also continued to interview celebrities, mostly for niche publications such as inflight and cruise line magazines. But a disturbing trend has steadily taken place over the last several years. Instead of the strategic communications we attempt to practice in the corporate world, celebrity publicists are acting as the gatekeepers to merely say “no” to the vast majority of interview requests without analyzing and stratigizing these opportunities with their clients. This is not the practice of media relations. This is the practice of media avoidance.

The foundation for a positive working relationship between publicist and journalist hasn’t changed. It’s still rooted in trust. This means that both parties have to respect one another and honor the commitments they make.

Part of practicing strategic communications, it seems to me, is to look for opportunities to positively maximize exposure in the most convenient way possible. That often involves looking at “non-traditional” media outlets such as inflight magazines. These publications have large readerships and reach a desirable demographic. Often, these interviews can be conducted (if not in-person) from a celebrity’s cell phone when he or she is stuck in Los Angeles gridlock or during downtime on a TV or movie set. Easy, painless and great exposure!

I challenge my colleagues in the public relations profession to take a more serious approach to considering media opportunities, consult and counsel your clients and don’t discount opportunities for them to appear in non-traditional publications. This shift in direction can only occur if the senior partners at the established entertainment publicity firms create this type of culture and mentor their young staffs in the strategic practice of media relations.

(Fantle is the co-author of the recently published book, “Reel to Real: 25 years of celebrity profiles from vaudeville to movies to TV” and works full-time as director of public relations for the Greater Milwaukee Convention & Visitors Bureau.)

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