Thursday, August 13, 2009

Celebrity PR and Lee Solters

I’m currently ½ way through the August edition of PR Week which is largely devoted to social media. The pub also lists its “40 Under 40” superstar picks and, again, I missed it. Oh wait, I just turned 49…whatever. (I was once named by Los Angeles Magazine as one of Los Angeles’s 101 Hottest People, but that was when I was, myself, under 40 and, frankly, not really the same thing. In any case, it didn’t do much for my professional or dating life, but I can report that the then relatively-unknown Ryan Seacrest was also named and had his photo just above mine on the page.) Exciting stuff….

Anyway, in the current issue I read a couple of excellent, non-social-networking-related opinion pieces; one about the premature, Mark Twain-like reporting of print journalism’s death, and the other about the need to have good, solid and (yes) old-fashioned media pitching skills. I rather liked the pieces and they made me think of my early PR training in the pre-Twitter dark ages of the (early) 1990’s.

My first job in PR was for PR master Lee Solters. Lee, who died in May at the age of 89, represented Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand and Pia Zadora when I worked for him … and, at one time or another during his long career, repped every other major star – from Frank Sinatra to Led Zeppelin – in Hollywood. He was even credited with helping to introduce The Beatles to America! He was a legend.

Lee was very proud of a loose-leaf notebook he used to keep track of his media contacts in which he had glued the masthead for every outlet imaginable. Page after page, name after name, number after number, it was his own personal media map; his Bible. In the book's margins, he’d hand-written information on who had written about what client, when, etc. As most know, journalists flit back and forth from outlet to outlet, so you can imagine the hieroglyphics that resulted – I don’t know how he kept track of who was where, but he did!

One day, I borrowed the book to copy down some information into my own Bible. The phone rang - it was the manager of a client. During the rather long conversation, I absentmindedly began doodling … on Lee’s “New Yorker” page! By the time I’d finished the conversation, I’d added my own artistic renderings to Lee's … and completely covered some of the information! Oy vey! I was mortified.

The only thing to do was leave, but of course I couldn’t do that. The only thing to do was be a man and fess up – but first I went out and bought a new New Yorker. I tore out the masthead and pasted it onto a new page. I got out our media books (yes, boys and girls - we had media books ... they were published by Bacon's) and started looking up phone numbers. Then I called The New Yorker and verified every single person on the list and clarified their information. I then saw that he’d had freelancers listed – some were also obscured – so for extra measure I went through several back-issues of the magazine and identified every writer who was not on the masthead. Then I started calling and somehow managed to get information for many listed. This, remember, was pre-internet. No Google searches. No Twitter lifelines.

When I was mostly satisfied, I brought his bible back to Lee who was, no doubt, listening to some Steve and Eydie CD, and presented my case. I showed him his Bible and the graffiti I’d added to the New Yorker page and then presented my new page with what I hoped was the right combination of remorse, humility and triumph. He looked up at me over the tops of his glasses and held my gaze. Then, he opened a drawer and pulled out a thick stack of hole-punched papers. Without saying a word, he found what he was looking for, removed the bastardized New Yorker page from his Bible and replaced it with a clean one: the exact copy of what I’d so skillfully (I thought) replaced! He had copies of everything! Then he said something I’ll never forget: “I appreciate your honesty and I appreciate the work you did on getting the new information. But never forget that you and only you are responsible for your resources. Protect them – always!”

There is no need for hand-written media bibles any more (that’s what databases are for) but
I will always remember that valuable lesson.

And God save Print Journalism!

RIP, Lee.

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