Haggling With New York Times Columnist David Segal

November 26, 2013

Finding examples of PR professionals demonstrating egregiously questionable judgment is like shooting fish in a barrel; the industry tends to attract a disproportionate percentage of facile people who think that being a “people person” is the only qualification required. There are no educational or regulatory barriers to entry and, despite the best efforts of PRSA, there are no widely embraced ethical standards. I’ve lobbed my share of barbs (see here, here, and here) about our industry’s ills, though I limit my dart-throwing at influential executives and companies.

So I tend to ignore the legions of reporters (and there are just too many to link to) who write stories trashing PR folks, a group that is hardly neutral given the central role that PR often plays in the news-gathering and -reporting process. There is a definite love-hate relationship between journalists and PR people, as both can easily make or break the others’ day. Journalists taking shots at the PR industry is pretty much a “dog bites man” kind of story and, accordingly, reporters who write these stories aren’t exactly chasing the next Watergate-level story. But now that New York Times reporter David Segal has joined the fray, it’s an opportune time to set journalists straight about some of their own limitations and hypocrisy.

Mr. Segal writes a bi-monthly column called “The Haggler” for the New York Times’ Sunday business section. It’s a column I’ve long enjoyed, as Mr. Segal not only brings justice for consumers who have been badly screwed by questionable business practices, he does it with considerable dry wit. If I were Mr. Segal, I’d be looking to leverage the column into an online business. The column really is that good, though I can’t imagine how someone with such an impressive journalism and educational pedigree got assigned to write it.

Mr. Segal on Sunday chose to wander off his consumer protection reservation and launch a crusade on behalf of journalists who received unsolicited pitches from PR people. Mr. Segal expresses outrages about the myriad unsolicited consumer product pitches he’s received, declaring “that the odds of the Haggler writing about any of these topics could be safely described as nil” … and then he proceeds to highlight one of those very products.

The product he mentions is a self-chilling iceless drinking glass made by a company called Soireehome.  Andrew Lazorchak, a managing director for the company, was purportedly put off after Mr. Segal advised him that his PR firm was bombarding journalists with pitches about his company. Maybe so, but as a result of their scattershot, “let’s see what sticks” media outreach tactics, Soireehome and its product received a mention in the New York Times. I’d be curious to see what Google could tell us about upticks in searches for that drinking glass. Something tells me volume is probably up. I admit it: As someone who likes his martinis bone cold, I thought about googling it myself!

Though I certainly don’t condone blast PR pitches to journalists and won’t take on clients that place a premium on the quantity of story ideas marketed to reporters, versus the quality and relevance of them to individual media outlets, the sad truth is that, more than ever before, it works. Journalism’s “standard operating procedures” have plummeted to such a low level that increasingly what Mr. Segal decries as PR spam finds its way into the blogosphere and ultimately into mainstream newspapers. Gawker in its “PR Dummies” column once decried a PR firm for sending out a staged photo of an actress purchasing some orange juice, but the image – and the Gawker column – actually garnered some pick up (see herehere, and here). Granted, not all the mentions were positive, but there is a school of thought (which I don’t subscribe to) that all PR is ultimately good PR. In the client’s eyes, the “buzz” could very well have been a perceived win. (For what it’s worth, I hadn’t heard of that brand of orange juice until I read about it on Gawker, but now I know it has 50 percent less calories than that company’s other orange juice products!)

I can’t help note Mr. Segal’s outrage about his difficulty in getting contact information for executives at Vocus so he could have them delete his contact information from the company’s database. Apparently, he doesn’t subscribe to the old adage, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”  Mr. Segal also takes umbrage that the PR firm Avalon Communications didn’t return his messages: “Ironic,” he notes, “given that it specializes in communicating.” Here’s an even bigger irony: Journalists, who make their living posing questions and demanding accountability from others, almost never are willing to talk on the record themselves (see here).

The bottom line is that the general public cares little about the interactions of journalists and PR people; it’s too “inside baseball” for the average news consumer, akin to a chef complaining to his guests about his dinnerware provider.  I’m surprised Mr. Segal’s editors gave him the green light to pursue this particular column when it is so far off the mark from his usual themes. One could argue it lacked…relevance. Hmmmm, why does that sound familiar?

If I were still a working journalist, fairness would require that I contact Mr. Segal and give him an opportunity to respond. But given his stated interest in not receiving unsolicited emails from PR people, I thought it best not to bother him.