INTERVIEW: Dave Lieber of The Dallas Morning News re: The Haggler, #PRFail, Pitching Properly

Yesterday, we brought you a story penned by David Segal (aka “The Haggler”) of New York Times consumer reporting fame. In summary, he was sent an atrocious email by an Austin, Texas PR firm. This pitch was so bad, Segal called Vocus for putting his number on a list and the PR firm for actually using it for such imbecilic reasons. Neither Vocus nor the PR firm ever called him back, and now Segal hates flacks from here to eternity.

In response, I called a friend of mine: Segal’s counterpart at The Dallas Morning News, the great Dave Lieber.

For more than 20 years, Dave was the consumer crusader of the southwest from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. That is until he was called upon to play for the other team at the Morning News. If anyone will help flacks understand the suckdom of others in this profession, it’s Dave Lieber. He really cares, not only about journalism, but also about people in general. And yes, that includes PR professionals. Here’s my interview with Dave “The Watchdog” Lieber.

Read to the end and enjoy. Trust me, I know you will:

SPW: You have been a journalist for more than three decades. What negative trends have you seen PR professionals continue or never change? 

Watchdog: The biggest is that everything is automated, so all a PR firm has to do is buy an email list and then promise a client “We’ll hit 10,000 press people.” True, they will hit 10,000, but what kind of solid media hit will they get from a data dump like that? The whole idea of a perfect pitch was that a PR pro has a professional relationship with a reporter (like I have with you, Shawn!) Now their idea is hitting the ‘send’ button. In the 1,000 spam PR pitch emails I’ve received in recent months, only one or two were personally tailored to me. And I wrote back both PR folks, “I know you’ll go far because you showed me you’re not like everyone else.” Both wrote back nice replies. I didn’t do either story. Truth is, I’ve been writing for daily newspapers for 38 years, and I generally come up with my own ideas, or my readers do. But PR folks don’t contribute, because so few even bother to check what my beat is. I get a zillion pitches for books. I don’t write about books. I get a zillion pitches for interviews. I only interview you, on my Watchdog beat, if you get hurt or you are the one doin’ the hurting. If PR people really knew the kinds of columns I write each week, they would want to keep their clients a zillion miles away from me.

SPW: Much like David “The Haggler” Segal, I’m sure you have seen your fair share of pitches that have nothing to do with your journalistic focus. Why do you think that happens when it only takes three minutes of research to figure a consumer watchdog doesn’t care about medical technology that helps rhinoplasty become a smoother process? 

Watchdog: I’ve seen a few PR folks who have researched me. Identity theft firms are the best. Their PR people quickly figured out what I do. I think it’s just laziness. To actually research what a reporter does means you have to Google them and try to read their last five stories. Then, if it’s a match, you write to them and say, “Hey, I saw your story on the ballerina. Nice. I’ve got a client who….” That’s the way you do it. I haven’t seen anyone do it like that. But if I were in PR, I’d kill because I’d know how to make the perfect pitch to the right reporter.

SPW: Have you ever blacklisted PR people or called media databases to opt-out? If so, generally speaking, what caused it? If not, what is your opinion of what causes it for your colleagues? 

Watchdog:  Truth is, I don’t want mail. I don’t need it. I hate it. I get more than anyone on my newspaper because I hear from readers who have been hurt and need help. Quickly. I deal with hundreds of those, so the last thing I need is a PR pitch. It aggravates me. But I don’t blacklist people unless they really annoy me, and that’s hard to do. What annoys me is when someone adds me to their newsletter list without my permission. I’d like to send them in a brick in the mail, but it’s all electronic, so I send an “unsubscribe me and I may report you to the FTC” note to scare them. And if a PR person is reading this and is saying, “I want to add Dave to my list,” I’d say, “Don’t bother.” See, Shawn, I’ve perfected the art of the scan. I am able to give less than one-fifth of a second to any email to see if it interests me. My eyes look like Malcolm McDowell’s in “A Clockwork Orange.” (SPW NOTE: See why I heart this guy so much? Genius.)

SPW: Many PR agencies use spam as a tactic, thinking it will “cut through the clutter” of the near 1000s of emails and voice mails you get DAILY! Explain how that (doesn’t) work and tell us what a flack can do to get your attention. 

Watchdog: To get my attention is to advance a story subject line that I am working on. If I am exposing some kind of bad business practice and a client of yours is an expert who has come up with a solution, chances are high there could be a mention in a followup. But that takes work. That takes reading me and knowing what I’m doing. With free Web access to all my columns, that takes a few minutes. But then again, they’re all listed on one page and the easy Google search of “Dave Lieber Dallas Morning News Watchdog column” would bring up the page. That’s the degree of difficulty. Not much.

SPW: Is there any hope for this industry I love so much? An olive branch between flacks and hacks, if you will? 

Watchdog: In the end, the flacks will win. There will be no hacks. Only flacks who act like hacks and the public will be worse for it. But that’s economics. The writing is on the wall. But until we’re gone, good luck messin’ with me. Final note: My bone of contention are all those newbie authors who print books and then assume they can get reviews and feature stories and lots of media attention. But they get none because there are more books printed than ever before, less media outlets, and of course, the self-publishing business doesn’t ferret out the weak the way mainstream publishing does. So they hire a PR firm which promises an email data dump. And I get these book author pitches several times a day. And each time, when I’m scanning for my one-fifth of a second, I think to myself, “Sucker.”

And that, friends, was honesty in its highest order. Big favor? Since Dave already gets his fair share of email, do him a solid. Visit his charity: Summer Santa. Since 1997, Dave has opened some amazing doors and helped provide amazing things for children who have to access to amazing anything. And, as the name would imply, this is a year-round thing, not just-when-people-get-charitable-fuzzy-feeling-during-the-holidays thing. For more information, call 888-28-SANTA or contact them here. Now would be a great time to show your gratitude for this wonderful interview. Thank you flacks, and much respect to Dave Lieber for this priceless information.