Category Archives: PIOs

The airline publicist

Bill Liss, airline PR guy

Bill Liss, airline PR guy

Before he was a newsman, Bill Liss was a PR guy.  This is a rare thing.  Many PR folks start their careers in the news biz — then flee to (what they hope will be) the 9 to 5 world of public relations.  Liss, who has been a reporter at WXIA since 1989, got his first job at Trans World Airlines as a publicist in New York.  It was the mid 1960s.

“I got a call one day from the senior vice president for public affairs at the airline, who said, ‘We’ve got the Beatles coming to the United States. We want you to handle it. And I sort of said, ‘well why not?'” Liss recalls.

“It was an intriguing phenomenon at that point to me,” Liss says. He was a jazz fan in the 1960s.

Bill Liss, WXIA

Bill Liss, WXIA

Liss flew to London where he said he got acquainted with the pop group that had first appeared in America one year earlier on the Ed Sullivan Show. While in London, Liss said says he spent some time with the band and its manager, Brian Epstein. Then they boarded a Boeing 707 for the flight back to New York.

“We had a great time. It was all first name basis, back and forth, and just had a very nice experience,” Liss says.

“But also part of my job was to keep an eye on them and make sure that they didn’t go crazy on the plane because… it was a commercial flight. It was a regular commercial flight.” Liss says there were Beatles fans in the coach section of the aircraft, mostly women, who’d booked travel once they learned the Beatles would be on that flight.

Liss recalled his transatlantic flight with the Beatles in a story I produced Friday on 11Alive.  You can see the video or read the text here.

When they landed, a photographer recorded the Beatles deplaning at Kennedy Airport. The photo shows Liss is at the top of the ramp stairs holding a camera — documenting it from above.

“Which, at least, it’s proof that I was there,” Liss said.

I swiped much of this text from the story I posted on 11Alive.com

Liss is the guy with the camera behind the flight attendant at the top of the stairs.

Liss is the guy with the camera behind the flight attendant at the top of the stairs.

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Between the lines

More often than not, this blog isn’t about what I’m actually writing.  It’s about what I’m not writing.  I have a wealth of material I’m withholding.  Mostly, it’s to preserve my relationships– in particular, with my boss and with folks out in the world with whom I must retain a level of rapport.

Here’s what I’m not writing about these days.

Here's a photo I'm not writing about

Here’s a photo I’m not writing about

The (friendly, I thought) politician who told me he thinks my coverage of him sucks.   The politician called my boss to “spin” a story before it aired.  When I texted him to object, he texted back with the surprise critique.  A post might be instructive, but risky.

The latest wrinkle in a volatile relationship with a difficult yet (I admit grudgingly) effective PIO.  The story has the makings of a hilarious post, which I’ll probably never write.

The ridiculous offer by an agency to grant me a long-sought “exclusive” — except for the caveat that I couldn’t record any TV images.  I probably will write this one at some point, but I haven’t completely given up on the story (which wouldn’t be that big an “exclusive” anyway).

The arguably mismanaged launch of a political candidacy.  I say “arguably” because it probably wasn’t.  But it sure did inconvenience journalists!  And that’s what matters, right?

The ups and downs of advocacy journalism.  Perhaps soon.  But not today.

The out-of-work pol who threatened me bodily this spring.  A post would have been a tired repetition of a familiar theme.

The weird new political tilt of a once-noble local news organization.  This would violate my self-imposed moratorium on talking shit about my competitors.

The most laughably worthless waste-of-skin publicist in metro Atlanta.  Actually, this would be an amusing online competition.  Unfortunately, I still call and email my useless nominee, so this post would be ill-advised.

Great local PIOs.  There are some who stand out.  But if I name them, I fear they will face reprisal from their small-minded bosses.

 

Worst press conference ever

It would be hard to find a more wretched “press availability” than the one in Atlanta Friday, which featured Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Gov. Nathan Deal and Mayor Kasim Reed.

Once a lengthy and quite dreary dog-and-pony show at an Atlanta  elementary school concluded,  one of the event’s handlers herded the press corps onto a stage in the school auditorium.  There, we found ourselves facing Duncan et al backed up to a curtain.  A microphone on a stand stood between us.

Duncan, Reed, Deal, Blank et al

Mic stand in the middle: Duncan, Reed, Deal, Blank et al

The microphone was connected to a mult box that didn’t work, and to a PA system that played audio into the auditorium.  So the people lingering in the auditorium kept hearing moderator Stephanie Blank’s helpful “testing one two three” reps, but photographers recording the event only heard ambient audio.

Most of us were there to talk to Reed or Deal about news that had nothing to do with education.  But the Atlanta press corps can be curiously genteel.  We wanted Duncan and anybody else to say their piece and take questions about education first.

Likewise, nobody wanted to bum-rush the participants by extending our arms toward their mouths with our logofied microphones.  It would have looked very sloppy– especially with the tantalizing presence of a mic stand and a mult box to potentially prevent it.

The “availability” stalled for nearly ten minutes while everybody looked at everybody else to solve the audio problem.  Then Sonji Jacobs Dade, Reed’s spokeswoman, broke the logjam:  Figure it out, people.  The secretary and the governor and the mayor need to move on.

Stephanie Blank handles the audio

Stephanie Blank handles the audio

The next move was a stroke of genius by WGCL’s Craig Bell.  He somehow got Mrs. Blank, the estranged wife of billionaire Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, to hold his microphone while standing next to Secretary Duncan.

That move gave the appearance of problem solved.  The participants began speaking into the stand mic, amplified into the auditorium.  True, none of the other cameras was able to get clean audio.  But this futile exercise beat the alternative — which was dragging out this standoff even longer.

As Mrs. Blank gamely held WGCL’s mic, the rest of us just kind of waited for somebody to say something worth recording.  When Duncan talked blandly about the APS scandal,  I leaned in with my logo mic, as did another TV guy.  Bell sat on the floor to avoid obstructing the view of cameras.  Unlike the audio, their shots were clean.

Little news was made, and mercifully, it ended within minutes.

As everybody departed, Deal and Reed stuck around for questions on unrelated topics.  Reed talked at length about crime in front of a semi-circle of cameras, recorded by Atlanta TV types with extended hands holding gaudy microphones.  By the time he finished, Duncan was long gone.

The event was a multi-layered cluster of bigshots from the federal, state and local governments.  Maybe it was Duncan’s event.  Maybe it was an Atlanta Public Schools event.

It seemed to be quite well organized, yet concluded as a clusterf@#k.  I blame the press corps.  We need to quit being so damned genteel.

A credible source

John Bankhead retired last week.  Bankhead had been the spokesman for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation since 1987.  He wasn’t a cop.  He was a communicator, the go-to under some of the weirdest and most unhappy circumstances imaginable. Bankhead says he conducted his first TV interview in Atlanta in 1987 with WXIA’s Donna Lowry.  He remembers his first encounter with yours truly when I met him with a photog at his church following a Sunday service.

As reporters, we knew that when the GBI was involved in a newsworthy case, Bankhead would meet our information needs on a timely basis.  Even when information was sparse, Bankhead’s credibility reduced the number of disagreements in the field between reporters and law enforcement.

For 26 years, he was a class act.  He agreed to the following exit interview.

Moments that stand out in your career as a PIO?

John Bankhead, GBI

John Bankhead, GBI

1 – Tri State Crematory – I recall when I was driving up I-75 to Noble when the news first broke, I passed Dr. Kris Sperry, Chief Medical Examiner and his deputy, Dr. Mark Koponen. Dr. Sperry waved me over so I stopped in the median. Dr. Sperry got out of his car and came back to tell me that I was not going to believe what I was about to see when I got there.  For Dr. Sperry to say that, I knew it was going to be gruesome – better use unusual – and he was right.

2- Meredith Emerson case. The hiker who went missing in Union County.  Gary Hilton was convicted of her murder and that investigation led to his being charged and convicted in Florida. He received the death penalty down there.  Hilton is evil incarnate.   I was at or near the scene when they found her body. They had to bring Hilton down from the Union County jail so he could tell them where he discarded her head.  I have never seen GBI agents so emotionally upset over a case before or since.

3. Kristi Cornwell – Another missing woman in Union County whose body was found months later by her brother.  The man we believe was responsible for her kidnapping and murder killed himself in a standoff with Atlanta police.

4. Julie Love – 1989 missing woman case which the GBI eventually solved. Channel 11 News Director Steve Smith broke the news on the fact that the GBI had arrested one person and were looking for another. I told him to hold off since agents had more work to do on that other person. When they arrested the second man, I gave Steve the go ahead to go with the news. Others stations weren’t too happy with me about that, but that’s the news business. I was there when they found her body in a pile of tires off a remote road in Atlanta.

5.  Santa Claus (that is a town) Killings in Toombs County – four members of a family were murdered just before Christmas, the parents, their 16-year-old daughter and their 8-year-old son. The parents were also foster parents and the other foster children were kidnapped by the murderer, one of whom was sexually assaulted by the suspect. I remember the Christmas tree in the home with dozens of presents under the tree for the children.  The suspect was later arrested by GBI agents and he was tried and convicted in Walton County.  I helped remove the body of the 8-year-old. The top of his head was blown off by a shot-gun blast. He had been sleeping in the top bunk and part of his brain was on his little league photo on his dresser.

6. The Ranger, Ga. murders of a family of four which you covered.  An Amber alert helped catch the killer.  He tried to kill himself.

I have limited myself to 6 but there are many others.

– Three (or two or one) moments of jerkiest behavior by reporters / photographers?  Name names at your discretion, unless mine is one of them!

I always let the reporter fire the first shot then I return the fire.  New reporters to the Atlanta area who were not familiar with me have tried to be pushy at first but have come to learn that I don’t have much patience with that approach, so I don’t get the “jerkiest behavior”.  The Atlanta media have been very professional in their dealings with me and the GBI over the years and I am grateful for that.

I did have this voice mail message from a TV assignment person who didn’t know my voice mail had picked up. She must have been training a new desk person, and I could hear her tell her trainee that John Bankhead can be an asshole at times so you better be prepared when you call him.

Any noble / honorable news media moments stand out?

All of them.  You are all professionals.

Gone fishin'.

Gone fishin’.

Did any GBI folk ever urge you to lie to the media?  Mislead the media?  Why?  How’d that turn out?

Never.  That is not tolerated.  We have that in our media policy and no GBI employee has ever suggested doing that in my 25 years here.   Credibility is as vital in this job as it is in yours.   The Director, our legal services director and I gave a presentation to the International Association of Police Chiefs this past summer on how to tell the media that you screwed up.    Bottom line – You do it quickly and honestly.    The Director and I did add a section to our media policy to stress that that the media is not to be misled.

There was a case in the Metro area years ago where a woman had claimed people had sacrificed babies at a remote location in one of the metro counties. The media found out about the claim and showed up near the scene. The agent in charge had the bright idea for our crime scene specialist to bring an evidence bag to his car, put it in his trunk and drive off without saying anything. Well, the media started calling me asking about the baby bones we found.  There were no bones as there were no babies being sacrificed but there is an addition to our media policy that says the media shall not be misled in any fashion.

Some law enforcement PIOs excel at giving good quotes / soundbites while divulging very little actual information.  You were, respectfully, a master.  Any tricks to that?

I was in a media class Atlanta PD put on years ago, given by the FBI – go figure – and they had these scenarios that each of us were interviewed about on camera.  I gave my interview and Lou Archangelli asked me how I said so much without saying anything.  I never thought much about that about being a “trick”.  I just know what I can’t talk about and what I can and I talk about what I can.  “Filler” if you will.

Too many PIOs nowadays are sneering, obfuscatory, boneheaded and / or just plain useless.  What’s up with that?

To some reporters and photographers, I could fall into those categories at times.  I think it might have to do with the pressure they (use to be we) face now with the change in media inquiries with the advent of the internet. Used to be, radio needed it first, then TV, then the newspaper so you had some breathing room to respond based on differing deadlines. Now with the Internet and all the cable news shows et al, everyone wants the info at the same time; and being a one-person shop here, that can be trying.    Email does help with that, though.

And my “curmudgeonliness” doesn’t come through in an email as much.   I remember your interview of me on the Ranger case and your photographer asked me a question that I must have misinterpreted or didn’t like and I responded rather rudely.  I guess I could blame it on the stress and pressure, lack of sleep, etc., but it was uncalled for and I later apologized.

Are law enforcement folk more distrustful of the news media than they used to be?  Why?

I don’t think so. When I first started this job, most of the local agencies the GBI assisted in an investigation wanted us to handle all the media inquiries.  Now, most of those agencies handle the media inquiries themselves unless it’s something major. That also has to do with the professionalism of the media.

Some of the good ones

I’ve killed my share of pixels writing about lousy public information officers (PIOs), and I remain astonished at their pervasiveness in government.  By contrast, I’m very appreciative of those who do their job well.

Carlos Campos

At the Atlanta Police Department, the communications division was frequently treated as an afterthought.  Under some regimes, the communications folk were muzzled until the Chief personally OK’d the release of info.  So former AJC reporter Carlos Campos deserves a lot of credit for transforming APD communications into an office that’s been highly effective.  It’s timely and responsive to the news media, for the most part.  And it’s shown a proactive approach to generating positive and worthwhile stories showing cops doing their jobs and solving crimes.

It appears Chief George Turner has given Campos and staff the leeway to actually share information on a timely basis.  It may rankle some cops (who love to gripe and now have something new to gripe about internally).  But Campos is mostly making APD look good day in and day out.

Don Plummer

The Fulton County Superior Court made a shrewd move by hiring former AJC reporter Don Plummer to create and run its public information office.  Fulton has more high-profile cases than any county in Georgia.  Plummer was indispensable (so I hear) during the lengthy Brian Nichols murder trial in 2008.   Judges typically shun publicity, understandably.  A guy like Plummer can provide needed balance between judicial discretion and the need for openness.

Incredibly, the Fulton Superior Court discontinued Plummer’s job in January, firing him shortly after he helped the court push back against some bad publicity surrounding the release of a man accused of killing a state trooper.  He’s a talented guy and deserved better.

Danny Porter

My favorite PR guy isn’t a PR guy at all.  Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter may be the only DA in town without a communications specialist.  He doesn’t need one.  He answers the phone when reporters call his office.  If you leave a message, he’ll call you back.  If you show up in his lobby, he’ll eventually poke his head out the door and growl “whaddaya need?”

Porter usually knows why you’re there and typically wastes little time with reporters.  “I’m not going on camera” will frequently come out of his mouth before you ask (he talked on TV about the “Mansion Madame” story exactly once, then subsequently declined).  When he thinks his constituents need to see him talking about an issue, he’ll do it on TV.  When an issue warrants, he’ll spend time in his office with reporters giving them background.

Porter has his share of critics within the Gwinnett County Courthouse.  But he understands the news media and his role as a public official engaged in high-profile activity.  And he gets re-elected handily every four years.  The best publicist is frequently the guy who needs no publicist.

Two reasonably new additions to the PIO world deserve honorable mentions for outstanding service to their employers and accessibility to the news media.

Tracy Flanagan is the overworked PIO for the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department.  With Fulton’s seemingly-endless jail and courthouse security issues, the former WAGA reporter stepped into a bit of a hornet’s nest.  She’s a calm and responsive spokeswoman for an agency that needs it.

Reese McCranie is very protective of his boss, Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed.  But he’s also is savvy and helpful.  Reed’s two predecessors treated the news media like the enemy toward the end of their terms.  Here’s hoping that McCranie (and his boss, Sonji Jacobs Dade) can help Reed end that streak.

This isn’t intended as a comprehensive list.  I adore and admire many other PIOs.  But I’ve written enough.  Thank you for reading.