How to Get the Press on Your Side

Life on the Shrimp-dip Circuit

You’re lying on your couch late at night watching the tube, only vaguely aware of the late news flickering over the screen. There’s a fire in Pleasant Grove. Somebody’s knocked over a 7-11 in South Oak Cliff. There’s a two car collision on Stem-mons. But then there’s Mr. J.W. Brown cutting the ribbon on his new Mesquite Mutual Insurance building. What?

You’re leafing through the morning paper, blearily sipping a cup of coffee. On page 5C there’s a movie review of Star Wars. On 6C there’s an interview with Beverly Sills. But on 7C there’s a story proclaiming that Wahoo Wineries of Wichita Falls is just about to start distributing their Redman’s Rose on the Dallas market. What?

Chances are, Mr. J.W. Brown and Wahoo Wineries would never have reached your eyes and ears if their names had not been slyly planted by a public relations person at a press party over a Scotch and soda and a few bacon-wrapped chicken livers. It’s a curious little game. While the public may have little knowledge of what takes place at these near-incestuous gatherings, there is frequently a correlation between these affairs and the news or feature stories resulting from them.

Press people and PR types make strange bedfellows, and neither side is too thrilled about the arrangement. The relationship here is often covertly combative – and the battleground sometimes takes place in the most convivial of party atmospheres. Best expressed by one press party veteran, the game goes something like this: “You see how much you can eat and drink; they see if they can get a story out of you.”

As professionals go, journalists represent the most underpaid and overprivi-leged working class in the country. Unquestionably, there are a few press types who are wooed and won by somebody with something to sell. But most reporters are aware of this; basically all we’ve got going for us is our work and our integrity. I have rarely seen a media member sell out to do a story he knew in his gut had absolutely no business being done. The simple rule of ethics for the profession is this – if you feel you’re being compromised, get the hell out.

But let’s not concern ourselves here too much with the ethics of gin and shrimp dip journalism. Undeniably too many of us press types are impressed by free drinks and a few munchies. Yet too sumptuous a spread can leave a news type with the leery feeling that he is being out-and-out propositioned. Recently at a splendid press party at the Old Warsaw restaurant, ostensibly held to celebrate this storied Dallas restaurant’s new menu and decor, the press grew suspicious. The pátés and gourmet items laid before us seemed far too elegant for our plebeian palates (although I suppose onion soup mix dip and a slightly chilled Ripple Red would have been inappropriate on these premises). When word passed through the party that Brenda Vaccaro, the actress cousin of Old Warsaw owner Phil Vaccaro, was present, the question on everyone’s mind sprang to everyone’s lips: “What’s going on here? What do they want from us?” The inescapable conclusion was that Old Warsaw was not doing as much business as it wanted to.

Since reporters are inherently suspicious of press parties to begin with, party givers sometimes rely on inordinate gimmicks and elaborate guises to bring out the press. Within the last few months invitations to parties have arrived at offices around town in the form of a small crate of bananas (KNUS – “the top banana”), a bright gold tennis ball (a WCT function) and a cookie-cutter in the shape of a star (the Dallas Summer Musicals’ “Summershine Season”). Invitations to a new Playboy Club party were delivered by Bunnies in costume. Press kits, passed out at some point during a party, are considered an almost terminal gaucherie (they can always be sent to the office beforehand). The tireless custom of stationing a gap-toothed girl at a table near the entrance, determined to affix a name tag to every torso that enters the door, doggedly persists.

Name tags drive me up the wall, but I circumvented the problem at a recent Chili Appreciation Society meeting at Frank X. Tolbert’s Chili Parlor by switching name tags with Times Herald columnist Dick Hitt. I later sensed that the ploy had backfired when I got far more compliments on my work than I would normally receive. (Incidentally, the fact that Hitt invariably gets a better table at parties and press functions than I do can doubtless be attributed to the fact that this fine gentleman is many, many years my senior.)

There is, alas, some unfair public sentiment which has concluded that media people live and die for the freebies and frills of the press party, ignorant of the fact that the press party can, in fact, be a colossal pain in the ass on occasion, or at least a one-way ticket to terminal indigestion. Some of the worst times I’ve ever spent were in pursuit of a good time. Negotiating nibblies, for instance, on an infinitesimal paper plate while swilling whiskey from a plastic glass, all the while pressing the flesh with a newsmaker, politician, jock or celebrity requires the coordination of Dr. J and the concentration of Bobby Fischer. But as bored as media members get at seeing each other waiting glumly in the buffet line, and as irritating as it becomes when someone grabs your arm and leads you toward an introduction with the third vice president in some conglomerate structure, the press party remains a legitimate and sometimes essential function.

Some press members called it wretched excess when the Cullen Davis defense team held a press party before the aborted trial in Fort Worth of the millionaire Cow-town industrialist, accused of two murders. Defense attorney Phil Burleson set the tone for the evening by approaching the microphone at the outset and explaining, “We’re all going to be together for a long time so we might as well let our hair down.” Labeled a “press briefing”, the affair was nothing more than a first class press bash which wound through a plush hospitality suite of Fort Worth’s posh Green Oaks Motel. The bar whiskies were Chivas and Black Jack Daniels, and the hors d’oeuvres were above average.

Davis’ other defense attorney Richard “Racehorse” Haynes clearly knows how the game is played. “You gonna ply me with whiskey tonight?” one reporter asked coyly as the evening began. “You bet your ass,” Haynes laughed back. Some reporters didn’t accept the first drink and one or two boycotted the affair entirely on ethical grounds. Both groups missed the point entirely. Whether the function had a legitimate purpose or not, it did in fact exist and thus demanded attendance and perhaps coverage.

Reporters who don’t drink occasionally with their sources find themselves at a serious disadvantage when the time comes to twirl a piece of copy paper into an IBM Selectric or flip the switch on a Mini-cam live camera. While hard news seldom develops from press parties, many contacts are made and impressions confirmed at these media events. Bear in mind Durrell’s definition of a close relative to the press party. “The cocktail party,” he wrote in Justine, “as the name implies, was originally invented by dogs. They are merely bottom sniffings raised to the highest form.”

If booze is always available at these functions it is for a damn good reason. A good reporter knows to tarry one drink behind the person he is interviewing or the source he is cultivating, if for no other purpose than to be able to retain the information he has picked up. A good politician knows it doesn’t hurt any to be seen hoisting a few cocktails with the Fourth Estate.

Sports impresario Lamar Hunt’s annual press parties during World Championship Tennis week are justifiably famous. A man of true moderation, Hunt sips quietly on a glass of wine and watches the press go to hell right there in his own palatial home. This may sound strange, but there is something almost therapeutic about getting slightly gassed in front of a source. The reverse is also true. Both sides are keenly measured and surveyed under these circumstances, and vulnerability can on occasion ultimately prove to be strength. Newsmakers tend to get nervous around reporters who never wobble a tad or who never have to scribble on a cocktail napkin in lieu of a notepad.

But back to the Hunt parties. These are elegant affairs, orchestrated by Lamar’s beauteous wife Norma, who adds just the right touch of class to the proceedings. John Connally may be there to add a bit of charisma and importance to the gathering, and Hunt figures rightly that the press, and hence the public, will be impressed to see Hollywood types such as Charlton Heston and James Franciscus in attendance. Hunt flies such luminaries into Dallas during WCT week – a fine, bold stroke of PR.

Local TV press personalities however are generally sparing in their appearances at such functions. Some attribute this to the “star syndrome,” and that assessment is not entirely off the mark. Obviously the electronic media press cannot move about undetected with the same ease of lower-profile print journalists. If, say, Judy Jordan attends a press party, she must look her smashing best and deliver a good upbeat performance to keep us ink-stained wretches happy. If you’ve guessed that print journalists sometimes resent our higher-paid television colleagues, go to the head of the class.

Those who report through a typewriter have less to concern themselves with at these parties. The only rules of deportment are that one should not get so loose-tongued as to talk shop with the wrong people or so gassed as to unload on somebody else’s shoes.

Of the annual press bashes, my personal favorite has long been the party that Dallas warehouse magnate and rancher Fred Alford throws at his spread near Kaufman. Politicians, businessmen and media types are bused in to talk shop over great steaks and fine whiskey. After dinner everyone adjourns to the nearby corral where an ambitious amateur rodeo is staged for the benefit of the guests. Despite the overt cynicism of the journalist’s creed, it is difficult to conclude after attendance at maybe a half dozen of these Alford parties that the host is anything more than what he appears to be – a nice guy who happens to like the press. At the very least, Alford has, over the years, set up some splendid public relations.

On the other hand, there are numerous self-styled PR types who simply don’t know the rules. ” You’ve just got to come to our press party,” comes the pitch. “Have dinner with us. You don’t have to write anything if you don’t want to.” This type of invite invariably makes a media type cringe. When someone makes a point of stressing a “no obligation” angle, the reporter grabs grass like a defensive tackle who knows the flow is coming in his direction. What’s coming next is the hardest sell this side of K-Tel commercials on Channel 11. Anybody in journalism knows there is really no such thing as a free lunch. Nothing makes a newsman more comfortable than picking up the tab himself, which occurs frequently. At press parties this option is, of course, impossible. If an a-gency or business concern is really serious about getting the media’s attention, its PR representative will work diligently to develop access to the high profile press types and opinion makers.

There is a school – an old school – which maintains that Dallas really hasn’t seen a decent press party since Gary Cart-wright left town a decade ago. Cartwright wrote brilliantly for the sports sections of both Dallas dailies before moving on to a freelance journalism career, but is still best remembered in some quarters for his inventive performances at press parties. Disturbed one year by the decorum of a stuffy poolside party prior to the Colonial golf tournament in Fort Worth, Cart-wright bribed a waiter out of his uniform, purloined a large tray laden with rolls, moved quietly through the crowd and walked stoically off the high diving board.

One year, fortified by Yuletide spirit, Cartwright descended the stairs at Blackie Sherrod’s Christmas party completely in the buff. When his wife heatedly exhorted Gary to return upstairs and “put something on,” Cartwright silently obeyed – only to return moments later clad in a single red ribbon tied around a most private portion of his anatomy.

Somehow, I can’t see that sort of thing happening at a press party around here anymore. Maybe it’s for the better, but then again, maybe not. I just know that whatever form it takes, that little-known but important institution known as the press party will doubtless continue to flourish as long as somebody somewhere has something to sell. I tend to dread these functions, but generally have a better time when I get there than I expected. That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.

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