Howard Bragman explains the mutualism that binds journalists and publicists and makes some predictions for the New York Times.
Question: How should journalists interface with publicists?
Howard Bragman: I’m glad I have a journalistic education, a journalism degree, and have worked with journalistic outlets. And for me, what’s most important is that I still respect the journalists. There are a lot of Hollywood publicists who like to have power over journalists and like to intimidate journalists. I’m never been that way, even if I am in a situation where I have a superstar, it doesn’t mean I can’t be courteous and nice to a journalist, because we’re all trying to achieve the same thing, okay? And I’m trying to make friends, not enemies, out there in the world. What I’ve learned is speed, integrity, kindness… And, you know, I had a client recently who was getting a divorce, and this client said to me, “Well, just lie.” And I said, “I will say I’m not going to comment on that because it’s a private matter,” but I said, “I’m not lying. My reputation is something that I’ve achieved over many years in this business, and I’m not going to take 30 years and throw it away when your husband’s living in a hotel and everybody knows it,” you know? So you really have to understand that your reputation and your integrity are what you have, and people know. Don’t think journalists don’t talk to each other. Don’t think they don’t know who the nightmares are versus the people who are smart. And it goes back to my first job in PR, why did I get into PR? People weren’t reading my magazine and I thought, “All you got to do is read the magazine.” I look at that today, I look at people in my office and I’m like, “If you want to pitch somebody in the LA Times, you don’t call the editor-in-chief of the LA Times.” You say, “Well, I want to be in the calendar section and this person writes about TV and this might be the right person because they cover this particular nuance,” you have to do your work and you can’t be a good PR person without being a good consumer of media. And from my friends who are journalists, I would say that not all PR people are [flaks]. A lot of us have a lot of respect and a lot of integrity and a lot of professionalism, and give us a break, too, and communicate with us like we communicate with you. If somebody doesn’t return my e-mail or a phone call, I get frustrated the same way they would if I didn’t return theirs, and we sort of need each other. It’s not going to work for either of us as well without each other, I promise you. Question: How would you advise newspapers as they grow digitally? Bragman: I think there’s one misunderstanding out there and that is that young people don’t care about the news. I think the opposite is true. I see the young people in my office and the young people that I know online, on the web, going to TMZ, going to Perez Hilton, almost multiple times per hour, in a way where we, our generation, would wake up, read the newspaper and go on with our day and watch the news at night. So I wouldn’t mistake it for a lack of interest. I think it’s really the vehicle, and it’s like the trains back in the early part of the last century. They made the mistake of thinking they were in the train business and not realizing they were in the transportation business, and I think newspapers have to understand they’re not in the newspaper business, they’re in the news dissemination business. And if you’re the Chicago Tribune or the New York Times, you’re losing some advertising, you’re losing readers and you have some real challenges. But at the same time, you bring some things to the table in terms of history, in terms of credibility that these bloggers can’t compare to and you have to play to your strengths, and there may be some painful times, but I don’t think they’re going away. I think they may reincarnate themselves. I think they will come out in new forms. When I’m doing a campaign, it really depends who I want to reach. If I want to reach older, more traditional people, I’m going to go for print and traditional broadcast. If I want to reach young people, I’m going to be viral there. And for most campaigns, it’s like food, you don’t just want to eat meat or you don’t want vegetables or you don’t want carbs, you want to mix it up. As I go and promote my book, I have a mix of online, I have a mix of radio, I have a mix of print, I have a mix of broadcast, I have social networking. You want a pretty balanced diet out there to reach the broadest possible audience. Question: Where do you see the New York Times in the future? Bragman: I think the New York Times is going to become something you read on your personal computer device that is your phone and your iPod and all these things at once, and I think they’re going to have to adjust to this reality. At the same time, there are people who are never going to be happy unless they get the paper on their front steps or they buy the paper at the newsstand, and that’s why we’re going through this transition. I think what [Kendall] has done for books really is the future of books. It’s too expensive to print things anymore. It’s bad for the environment to print things, other than my book, which is good for the environment, but most books, most newspapers, it’s bad for the environment. You read this thing for a half-hour, you throw it in the garbage, and you start, again, there’s a lot of waste there. And I just think, economically, we’re not going to be able to afford it. But I don’t think we’re at the place we need to be where you have a beautiful 8-1/2 X 11 reader that has everything clear and it’s thin and it’s transportable. I think we’re just a few years away from that and I think that’s when the New York Times is really going to understand what their future is, as well as the Chicago Tribune and the LA Times. Question: Do we still need mainstream media? Bragman: You know, it’s interesting and there’s a very symbiotic relationship. Sarah Palin kept complaining about the media during the presidential campaign and she said she wanted to operate without a filter. Well, Hollywood celebrities have been starting to do that. Owen Wilson had a suicide attempt last year, and his first interview when he came back was done with his director, and I think it was done on MySpace or Facebook, where he did an interview, and that way, he didn’t deal with a traditional journalist. However, traditional media outlets still got that story out there after he did the interview. And in my own PR life, I worked with Al Reynolds, who is a college professor and a financial expert. Probably well known for being married to Star Jones and we were approached by every mainstream media outlet in the world to do the first interview. And I knew they would sensationalize him. I knew they would sleaze him, so we conducted our own series of interviews, put them on YouTube, and then released him to the mainstream media. And, you know, we needed the mainstream media or we wouldn’t have gotten out there. We were very journalistic in the way we approached the questions and answers with him. We asked all the tough questions [and the outlook] would ask us, which is why we didn’t face a lot of criticism from it. So I think they work together, and you really have to understand that they work part and parcel with each other, and it’s important to understand what’s going to play with mainstream media and which you can get away with on YouTube and MySpace and some of these social networking sites.