In a meeting room of the Crowne Plaza Holiday Inn off San Francisco's Union Square a psychic, a carpet cleaner, a ceramicist, a rockabilly singer and 15 other seekers of truth, financial freedom and better news coverage gathered on a recent Wednesday evening to hear publicist and media coach Susan Harrow tell them how to sell themselves without selling their souls.
Harrow gave us each 20 seconds to describe what we do.
There was a management consultant, speaker and "facilitator of new ways to see and be in the world." There was a psychic who helps people "see who they really are inside"; a ceramics artist who makes non-functional teapots; a rockabilly singer who "thinks it's time to get more visibility in the press"; a consultant who helps start-ups write business plans who's "been in midlife crisis for 30 years"; and there was me, "a writer hoping to find something interesting and amusing to write about."
It was weird. Why was it weird? It was weird because they were in a class learning how to dupe me, the enemy, but I, the enemy, was there.
I know what Harrow was thinking. She was thinking, "Come on, let's be open about this: Journalists need material and entrepreneurs need exposure. Let's just get the two together!" That's the supply-and-demand principle behind the bordello. It's practical, but it's not for everybody. It's not the way it's supposed to be.
The way it's supposed to be is the journalist spots his subject in the wild, studies her habits unobserved, interviews her associates, arranges to meet her, charms her, gives her trinkets, persuades her of his bona fides and then and only then does he finally get to do with her what he wants to do with her, which is, of course, to write nasty things about her private life.
That's the way it's supposed to be. But I've only lived in Northern California 23 years so I'm not quite used to the way things are done here.
People are optimistic here. They will pay $39 to get famous. It's only $29 if you're a Learning Annex member. The Learning Annex distributes free monthly class catalogs where you can sign up for a class on how to have an out-of-body experience ($29, $24 for members.), or Mega Speedreading with Howard Stephen Berg, the world's fastest speedreader ($79, $69 for members) or other classes that could change your take on life or just take your change, depending. If this group had mules, shovels and weather-beaten faces they could have posed for a portrait of our hardscrabble Forty-Niner forebears. But they didn't have shovels or mules or anything, not even weather-beaten faces. They were all scrubbed and eager - just like the Crowne Plaza Holiday Inn.
I understood the premise with my head that I think with, but in my other organs of knowledge I knew that our having come together in this hushed hotel meeting room on Sutter Street was off the scale of bogus. Here is what I would have said had I been Bruce Willis playing John McLane in a "Die Hard" movie where in order to prevent Chester A. Arthur School from blowing up with hundreds of kids inside he had to stand up in a hotel meeting room and explain something about journalism:
No matter how well a spiritual healer with a self-published book or a carpet cleaner with his life mission written on the back of his business card sends timely and compelling press releases; makes polite follow-up phone calls; thinks up clever tie-ins; attends relevant conferences; networks with peers, competitors and the press; chooses smashing and publishable glossies; and buys journalists lunches good enough to be memorable but cheap enough to be ethical, he or she still must face the cold, weary eyes of us, the journalists, who early on in life found ourselves constitutionally unfit to sell Amway products, run chip-making factories or peer into the luminous recesses of the soul for $200 an hour and thus after long years of studying history, literature or philosophy fell into such nihilism and despair that we volunteered to man the wretched, stinking trenches of the culture wars and now find our meager pleasures in a good headline, a crooked politician, an occasional corned beef sandwich and most of all in preventing crackpots, nincompoops, dunderheads, peabrains, angel collectors and reputable business people from monopolizing the front pages of our nation's news.
That's what you're dealing with, I would have shouted, if I were Bruce Willis.
But I was not asked for my overall thoughts on that topic. I was asked something else.
Harrow asked me to verify that journalists are indeed busy people and hard to get on the phone, and that if you got a journalist on the phone you should make it short and to the point. I corrected her in but one small way: "I do listen to crackpots," I said. Heads turned my way. "And what in particular would get you to listen to a crackpot?" she asked. "If the delusion is complex," I replied. Then I had the following thoughts: Do the people in this room think I'm referring to them when I say the word, "crackpot"?
Am I too narrow in my view of what it is possible to achieve in this world?
Am I fearful of failure?
Did I remember to turn off the coffeepot this morning?
Then I heard a comforting voice in my head saying, "Shut up, you asshole," and I knew it would be OK. But what about these people who had paid $39, or $29 if they were members of the Learning Annex, to learn how to get press coverage? Would they be OK? I talked to a couple of them afterwards by phone.
One of them had his life purpose statement on the back of his business card and he was a carpet cleaner but I only got to talk with him for a minute because I was busy copy editing when he called. His name was John Stewart, his business was called Healthy Choice Carpet Cleaners and he did not just want to clean my carpet. He wanted to save my life. He said his cleaning methods can help prevent childhood asthma and cancer.
"I try to get people to write articles not just for myself, but to help people avoid getting asthma and other diseases," he said. "I went to one house and showed them where all the dust was. I said, 'You can get lung cancer from that.' And they told me the man who lived there had passed away from cancer."
He also said he had statistics that showed that six to eight carpet cleaners die a year because of the chemicals they use.
For an instant, the pit bull of skepticism relaxed its jaws on the carpet cleaner's leg. But then the pit bull said, "Dude: This is just a small-businessman looking for press coverage. What did you expect him to say?"
You can always count on a small-businessman looking for press coverage to return your phone calls. The psychic, however, did not return my phone call because obviously she knew what I would say anyway.
I did reach Julie Hastings, the ceramicist who made "non-functional ceramic teapots." She told me about how she'd been selling real estate and doing a little ceramics work and then she got breast cancer.
"Up until then I'd made kind of timid ceramic pieces," she said from her East Bay home. She had been staying down in Mexico. "I came up and had surgery and all that, and all of a sudden I was making really strange pieces. I thought, I might not live forever, I might as well express my personality now." She has a friend in the same studio in Berkeley who makes tiny ceramic replicas of the beds that divas die in in operas. Is that interesting or what?
I also got Harrow on the phone. She's the one that told us how to sell ourselves without selling our souls. Getting a publicist on the phone is a little like breathing air: If you can't do it, you can't do anything.
"The essence of what I teach is how to be useful to other people," said Harrow. She really means it.
In American business, whose speech and manners clothe a spiritual longing in the rubric of material necessity, magical words redolent of deep, practical truths come and go with the seasons of commerce. "Synergy" combines the wordlets "syn" and "ergy" to make company names sound scientific, mystical and technical. (If I were a company I'd be CarySyn, or SynTen, or TenSynErg.) By inviting journalists to sit in on her class about how to get press, Susan Harrow was creating "synergy." Not only were there 19 potential little profile stories packed in one room, but the class itself was a story.
"I thought I should take my own advice and get some publicity," she said. "I'm a shy publicist." So she became her own client. That's synergy! She says her idea was, "How can I benefit not only my students but the journalists in the community?" That's synergy, too!
"A lot of these people have a talent but not necessarily for promoting themselves," she said. That was definitely true. But who's to say that their blissful ignorance of the catechisms of journalistic practice is not actually a great good fortune? Who's to say, for instance, that one is not better off having never gone to bed with someone who, before slipping off into a sleep filled with dreams of foreign correspondents and the White House press corps whispers, "I love you -- but that's off the record"? What's more, to hear a monkish-looking woman in her 50s ask, "What is the difference between a press release and a bio?" is to witness a purity of life experience akin to never having tasted coffee or tobacco, or having never heard the big snare shot on "Midnight Rambler." What journalist, once the intoxication of access and notoriety has worn off, would not pay a pound of prestigious clips for an ounce of such serene innocence?
There is this, too: The publicist is quite beautiful in her navy blue pin-striped jacket, her dark hair spilling past her thoracic vertebrae, her cheeks the color of an Arizona sunrise. Her quick, inviting smile speaks both to the grown-up man who can be counted on to memorialize her every gesture as a sexual encomium and to the inner second-grader who wants nothing more from a woman than to be held tightly and to be told he's a good, good boy. There is a strange and wonderful chemistry between a male journalist and a female publicist something like the bond between a dealer and a junkie. A shared vice binds them, but each believes he or she has the upper hand. The junkie, because there are always more dealers; the dealer, because there are always more junkies.
And each of course is living half a lie. Journalists may live inner lives as Indian scouts, trail bosses, gumshoes and CIA operatives licensed to seek, find and drain our quarry of the precious blood of information. But those who buy and sell the news hold the cards; they buy and sell punks like us every day. They know that when it gets cold outside we want to come inside and sit by the warm light of a good 401(K) plan.
Journalists may want to be priests and soothsayers, but mainly we study the national circuses, fireworks shows and magic acts narrated by the likes of Katie Couric and Matt Lauer, hoping to divine in them some oracular code like the spidery breaks in a lamb's scapula roasted on the Aegean plains. We read our future in the fractures of our brittle national melting pot.
And all the signs indicate that our nation has gone mad with lust for fame.
And yet, while professing high purposes in these things, to earn our money we sing of babies fallen down wells and the untimely deaths of hobo minstrels.
When I was working at a San Francisco weekly some years back, the coked-up producer of a then-obscure but now world-famous rock star called me on the phone and said, "What will it take to get [my boy] on the cover?"
"Five thousand," I said. There was a long pause while he thought it over.
Then there's the joke about the Hollywood press agent who calls the journalist and asks how he can get his client's name in the paper.
"Shoot her," says the journalist.
You want press? Shoot me.
That's the gig.