PR Flacks Then And Now

By Ray Schultz

When I started out in business journalism 30 some-odd years ago, PR flacks were viewed strictly as an annoyance. 

They called on the phone incessantly to tell you about some “news” or other, but there was no guarantee that the U.S. Postal Service would deliver the press release by the time they called. 

When it was a big story, they might messenger it over. But I once saw my boss at DM News, the legendary Joe Fitz-Morris, get red in the face and berate a PR person when Ad Age received an announcement before we did.

This was the same Fitz-Morris who reveled in breaking scoops on the World Of Advertising radio show and in DM News.

Another irritant was corrections. Usually, they were about context—we did tend to sensationalize things at times. 

The flacks would call to hector us and demand redress. I was intimidated by them, but not Fitz-Morris. 

He would tell them to write a letter to the editor, and in one instance snarled, “I disagree with what you’re saying, but I’ll defend to your death your right to say it.”

As for more minor errors, our policy was that if we spelled the name wrong, that was the way it should be spelled. 

Soon, I learned that PR people were obstacles to finding the news: The minute someone hired them, you lost direct access. 

One of my best sources sold his firm to a larger outfit. We were about to exchange a bear hug at a conference when one PR flack blocked him and another physically restrained me. 

Oh, you poor old fool. When I returned to the rigors of daily journalism a few years ago, things were different. 

Instead of the phone calls, I now receive dozens of PR emails a day. 

Many of them start with the daunting word EMBARGO in the subject line, alerting me that the news won’t be live for weeks, or even months, in some cases.  

These people are taking a big chance on my limited clerical skills. I suggest that Gmail set up a folder called “Embargo,” right  next to Promotions. 

Worse yet is when they offer you a report of some kind. To even access it, you have to first prove you’re not a robot, picking out the CAPCHA pictures that have stairs or motorcycles in them.

I’ve concluded that this is some kind of digital dementia test. 

Then you have to formally request the report, specifying your company size, number of employees and revenue, details I don’t know and wouldn’t share even if I did. 

Within minutes of the request, the phone rings—it’s a salesperson noting that I had downloaded the report. I always explain that I’m a reporter, not a candidate for a $600K software package. What a waste of his time and mine.

That said, it’s amazing how much of the work PR people try to do for you these days—it’s almost like the chef who does everything but chew the food. They provide easy-to-read synapses in cover emails, which are often easier to read than the actual press releases. 

They spot typos in real time. And they put in case studies from end users, something we were always after in more innocent days.  Not that they trust reporters–they often record interviews, in both audio and video forms.

I must be getting soft. It’s amazing that I’m so fond of many of the PR flacks I have known, then and now. 

Then As Now

By Ray Schultz

Is there no getting away from advertising? It pops up everywhere online, even in the middle of content, instead of being gated off. And it’s annoying even for someone who works on the fringes of the business

But it’s nothing new. In this brief paragraph, Frank Presbrey describes the ad acene in the 1860s, before the telephone or even electricity. It’s from The History and Development of Advertising, his 1929 classic:

A merchant would hire a man to stand and look fixedly at a placarded announcement; many would stop and read what seemed so interesting to him. At busy street corners boys were distributing handbills, while others went from hosue to house. Every horse car had packages of them tied to the rods in the cars so that passengers could pull them off. Drugstore counters had piles of free almanacs carrying advertisements for patent medicines. (A generation later one patent-medicine house—Ayer—is said to have distributed 25,000,000 almanacs in a year.) Advertising cards were common in the saloons of river steamers and other excursion boats. Novels contained an assortment of advertisements in the back pages—an old practice. Advertising assailed the eye to an extent which then was sensational.


The Shameful Sham

By Ray Schultz

I shouldn’t admit this, but sometimes I get nostalgic for the scam artists of the 1980s. Even the worst of them were fun to cover as a reporter.

Well, not to worry. The old rogues may be gone. But the free market provides.

Say hello to E.M. Systems & Services, LLC, and its web of “entities and fictitious business names.”

This outfit cold-called consumers and promised to reduce their credit card interest rates, according to an amended complaint announced last week by the Federal Trade Commission and the Florida Attorney General.

But the victims, who paid from $695 to $1,495 apiece, got bupkis for their money, the lawsuit alleges.

Most did not “achieve any debt relief at all, but instead found themselves saddled with even more debt than before because of the fees the (defendants) charged to their credit cards,” the plaintiffs charge.

And, of course, many never got the refunds they were promised if they failed to realize big savings (typically, $5,000 in 90 days), the court papers state.

As I live and breathe, it sounds like an old-fashioned credit repair scheme. And it was conducted in the time-honored way—not online, but by phone, according to the FTC and the Florida AG.

With E.M. Systems directing them, callers working for One Easy and other telemarketing firms “identified themselves as being with ‘card services,’ ‘credit services,’ ‘card member services,’ or one of the unregistered fictitious …businesses,” the complaint charges.

Then they “took steps to win consumers’ trust and create an air of legitimacy to their sales pitch.” it adds.

The callers told prospects that they already had “the names of some of their credit cards and/or the amount of their credit card debt,” the complaint continues.

Despite this purported knowledge, they then asked consumers for their credit card numbers, and billed them while they were still on the phone before any services could be rendered, the papers state.

And once the fees were paid, many consumers “never heard from the Debt Relief Defendants again,” and their “attempts at further communication were ignored,” the complaint continues.

Others were sent packets of information and papers to fill out. But they “rarely, if ever,” got the promised interest rate reductions, the FTC and AG maintain.

Another defendant, CardReady, arranged for at least 26 shell merchant accounts to “be used to process credit card payments,” the government plaintiffs charge. And this led to illegal credit card laundering and factoring of credit card transactions, they add.

CardReady, a so-called Independent Sales Organization, “maintained an agreement with a credit card processor named First Pay Solutions,” the complaint says.

This part of the scheme unraveled when “11 of the 26 shell LLCs were placed on the MasterCard Alert to Control High- risk (“MATCH”) list for excessive chargebacks,” according to the complaint.

Here’s a link to the complaint if you want to read it yourself.

But let’s not prejudge. This is a civil action, and it is yet to be litigated. The alleged villains may end up signing a consent decree with no admission of guilt, or they could get off entirely.

What a throwback, though—it’s enough to make you feel young again. Assuming there’s an ounce of truth in the charges, though, I doubt that the people who were snookered are amused.

Sunday Night at Nine: Harpo’s Wild Ride

By Ray Schultz

Marx Brothers fans tend to have favorites from different periods. Some like The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, Broadway hits shot on a sound stage in Astoria in 1929 and ‘30. Others prefer the wacky Paramount comedies made in Hollywood from 1931 to ’33—Monkey Business, Horsefeathers and the anti-war Duck Soup. And some favor the lavish yet very funny MGM musicals developed by Irving Thalberg: A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. But few would choose Love Happy, the final film made by the Marxes, despite the fact that it was Marilyn Monroe’s first.

Initially, the 1949 flick was a vehicle for Harpo Marx, the silent, harp-playing brother. But he had to enlist Groucho and Chico to get backing, and their parts were hastily written into the script.

Now entering their dotage, the Marx Brothers had not appeared on screen together since A Night in Casablanca in 1946, and the film before that was The Big Store, circa 1941. Fearing it had a turkey on its hands, United Artists pulled out. But producer Lester Cowen was resourceful: He went to several brands and “solicited paid advertising just to get the movie completed,” according to The Marx Brothers, by Mark Bego (Pocket Essentials, 2001). In other words, it was an early example of product placement.

These were squeezed into a memorable Times Square chase sequence, in which Harpo scampers on rooftops with neon signs flashing around him. The brands? Kool Cigarettes and Bulova Watches. But the climactic moment belonged to Mobil Gas. Cornered by his pursuers, Harpo mounts the Socony Mobil winged horse and rides the neon Pegasus into the sky. Stoned-out hippies later cheered that scene.

Meanwhile, back on earth, private eye Groucho is approached by a dark-haired Marilyn Monroe.

“Some men are following me,” she says.

“Really?” Groucho says. “I can’t imagine why.”

But that was the best of it. The movie tanked at the box office, and Groucho turned his attention to You Bet Your Life, his popular TV show. And yet, true Marx fans sob with gratitude when they get a glimpse of Love Happy on TV. Maybe it’s not their favorite, but there were only 13 Marx Brothers films after all, and each one was special in its way.