On a recent Wednesday afternoon, I found myself talking on the phone with a very nice woman who was telling me, as seriously as possible, why New York City is the best city for witches. On every criterion used to judge metropolitan witch friendliness, she pointed out, New York had scored incredibly high. “It’s kind of the melting pot for witchcraft,” Sharon Sullivan told me.
Sullivan is the managing editor for Lawn Love, a website that connects people to local landscaping businesses. I was talking to her because I had responded to a press release (“2022’s Best Cities for Witches”) emailed to me by Lawn Love earlier that day. I had to ask: Why was a lawn services company creating quasi-scientific studies about witches?
“Well, we have a team that works on some of these study stories,” Sullivan said—and indeed, on Lawn Love’s site, you can find surveys of the best states for beekeeping, the best cities for surviving a zombie apocalypse, and the best cities for Capricorns. “It gives us a little bit of something else to talk about. For us, a lot of it is just brand recognition. People hear these studies, they think, ‘That’s kind of interesting,’ and then they learn this company Lawn Love did this study.”
Over the past year, I’ve received press releases about all those stories and more from Lawn Love, and I’m certain many other journalists have too. Every day I get dozens of emails from publicists around the country, and around the world, informing me about new products, pitching story ideas, and always assuring me that the publicist would be happy to connect me to this pool safety startup CEO or that divorce attorney to talk about their very important topic. As I delete these emails, I often wonder: Who are all these people who want to talk to a reporter, any reporter, so badly that they will pay a publicist to email every journalist they can think of—including me, a guy who doesn’t write about pool safety or divorce or witches at all? Who actually opens these emails, let alone responds to them? Do they ever work? And what would happen if I tried?
Well, on Wednesday, Oct. 26, I decided to find out. I declared Oct. 26 my Publicist Pitch Day of Yes. I would respond to every single pitch email that asked me to talk to a client, replying, Yes! Yes, I would like to talk to this handbag entrepreneur, this life coach, this writer and social activist on a mission to empower women of color. Yes, I am available on the phone, or over Zoom, at their convenience. Yes, I will ask them about their revolutionary clitoral sonogram, their terrible opinions about cops and COVID vaccines, their advice for how to cope during the holiday season—a challenging time, as you know, for those who struggle with body image.
Ask most journalists if they would ever reply to one of these emails, not to mention write a story based on it, and you will invite an instinctive, chilling scowl. But on that day and in the week after, as I spoke to hopeful client after hopeful client, I was surprised to find that I enjoyed every single conversation, in one way or another. I certainly learned something each time. Could it be possible that the publicists are on to something? Is the daily flood of hopeless pitches actually a secret window into American ingenuity, optimism, and desperation—not to mention a very interesting line of scientifically tested sex toys?
I sent out my first email response to a publicist at 10:54 a.m. The publicists were ready for me: By 1:30, I was on the phone with Titania Jordan, chief marketing officer and chief parent officer of Bark Technologies, a company that makes a parental-control app for social media.
Bark’s publicist, who works for a firm called 5WPR, had called my attention to a news story posted that morning about a quartet of Buffalo teenagers killed in a car accident, noting that authorities thought the tragedy might be related to a viral TikTok trend, the Kia Challenge. “This is just one of many viral TikToks that encourage users, including children, to participate in dangerous and/or illegal ‘challenges,’” the email went on. It mentioned the NyQuil chicken.
This is a standard mode of publicist email. There’s a news story, and this client is uniquely positioned to offer comment on the story—oh, and it just so happens that the client works for a company designed to solve a problem described in the news story. The email concluded:
If interested, I can connect you with an expert from Bark, a leader in the online safety space for children, who can discuss:
· Dangerous social media trends and challenges
· Safety measures TikTok and other social media apps need to implement
· AI-backed software and technology that can protect children online
· How parents can protect their children from harmful social media challenges
· How to talk to your child about social media safety
Please let me know if you would like to speak with an expert from Bark and I’ll arrange an interview ASAP.
Jordan, it should be said, was incredibly polished and press ready. She told me a story about her son participating in the One-Chip Challenge, in which you dare someone to eat one super spicy Paqui tortilla chip. “I was like, ‘OK, who gave you the chip?’ ” she said. “ ‘How did you know it wasn’t laced with something?’ And he was like, ‘Mom, c’mon.’ ”
Her son was fine, she said, but many children aren’t. “If there is a hashtag associated with any sort of dangerous challenge,” she said, “TikTok needs to shut it down immediately.” I said that it seemed to me that many of these online scares, like NyQuil Chicken or Tide Pods, are totally overblown. “I don’t disagree,” she said, “but with an asterisk. Even just one bad choice, even one life lost because of something viral, is too many”—and Bark, she was quick to note, was at the ready to help parents out.
When you hire a publicist for your product, your book, your big idea, that publicist will be looking for a news peg. “Our publicist is always asking us to keep an eye out for things that are happening in real time that we have a comment on,” said Mark Armour, co-author of Intentional Balk, an extremely fun-sounding history of cheating in baseball. On the eve of the World Series, Armour told his publicist that while the Astros are famously cheaters, “what’s most interesting about the World Series is that the team that invented sign stealing, basically, is the Phillies.” His publicist pounced, and emailed me on Oct. 26.
Armour told me that in 1899, the Phillies sneaked their backup catcher into the center field seats with a pair of binoculars—a newfangled invention at the time—and had him wave a towel to indicate what pitch was coming. After they got caught, the team installed a wire from center field to the third-base coach’s box. “It would buzz the box,” said Armour, “so the coach could signal it to the batter.”
As a person who writes books and generally despairs of getting anyone to pay attention to them, I was sympathetic to Armour’s decision to hire a publicist. And also: Armour was a great interview! I asked him to ruin my childhood by telling me how the Milwaukee Brewers of that era cheated, and he noted that Bernie Brewer, the mustachioed mascot who lived in a chalet in County Stadium’s bleachers, was accused by Whitey Herzog of stealing signs.
This news-peg model also put me in touch with Alan Feldman, a personal injury attorney who’s won $100 million in settlements against Ikea. He told me that Congress needs to hurry up and pass the STURDY Act, which would direct the Consumer Product Safety Commission to adopt tighter standards for furniture stability to prevent tip-over deaths among children. The model sparked a less grave conversation with Terry Knickerbocker, an acting coach who worked with Michelle Williams to prepare for her performance in Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, out this month. “We worked on tone,” he told me. “We worked on shape. Some of my work is just to get out of her way. She’s an extraordinary performer with great instincts.”
Sometimes the news peg is as tenuous as: Here come the holidays. Marcy Kott, a divorce attorney from Chicago, advises couples considering a divorce to wait until the holiday season is through, because “you don’t have to fight about who’s taking the kids for Thanksgiving.” Lauren Starnes, a child development expert and executive at a nationwide chain of preschools, has useful advice for parents navigating the first holiday season after a divorce: “It’s important to affirm to your child that it’s OK to be happy at both homes.”
Truly, any peg will do as an excuse to deliver your opinions. A ruling by a Staten Island judge about vaccination requirements for city employees sparked a lively argument with Michael Letts, a former cop and founder of a nonprofit that distributes bulletproof vests to police departments. “It’s a power control grab by the city and state of New York,” he said. “There is no evidence to prove the public health merits of the vaccine.” (Obviously there is.) When I said I thought that the vaccine had actually saved tens of thousands of lives, he replied, “Cops sign up to risk their lives. Not to risk their health, injecting something in their body. I choose not to get vaccinated; that was my decision. I die? Yup, I’m dead now, but I bear the accountability for that.
“Daniel,” he added, “we’ve lost accountability in this country.” In the week after our conversation, I received three more pitches from Letts’ publicist, including “The Attack on Paul Pelosi Leaves Many Questions.”
When you reply Yes to every single interview pitch you get, the first thing that happens is that your inbox and your calendar become total nightmares. In the end, I conducted 17 different interviews thanks to my flurry of yeses. (Only one publicist didn’t respond to me at all. Thank God—he was representing a guy who wanted to explain NFTs.) That’s a lot, but I loved quite a few of them. I loved talking to Ardre Orie, an activist and writer whose show about women of color and beauty standards, The Lipstick Monologues, is playing for one night only in Atlanta on Nov. 12. I am convinced you should see it! It features Toneisha Harris from The Voice and Towanda Braxton, Toni Braxton’s sister. Dress code is black tie.
I loved talking to an editor at National Geographic Travel about that magazine’s feature on the 25 must-visit destinations of 2023. Specifically, I loved having the chance to demand how on earth my humble hometown, Milwaukee, made it onto such a list alongside the Scottish Highlands, the Azores, and the Appian Way. “I like surprises,” said Amy Alipio, “and there should always be a place on this list that makes me go, ‘Huh … who knew?’ ”
And I loved talking to two doctors, a vaginal surgeon and a radiologist, about the hidden anatomy of the clitoris and the Clitogram™, their “game-changing approach to sexual wellness.” What it is, basically, is just a sonogram of the clitoris, revealing the entire internal organ, not just the “tip of the iceberg” atop the labia. They argued that hospitals ought to do that before vaginal surgery. No one would perform a urological procedure without performing a penis sonogram. “Everyone talks about the penis, but doctors don’t talk about the clitoris, even with each other,” said Dr. Amir Marashi, sitting in the parking lot of a hospital because he had a labiaplasty to perform just after our Zoom. I enjoyed the way these two doctors’ interview style replicated the very issue they were trying to address, as overenthusiastic Dr. Marashi went on and on, and then his calm, professional business partner, Dr. Kimberly Lovie, added actual scientific detail, revealing the hidden structures underlying their argument.
They also market a line of sex toys. Dr. Marashi cheerfully explained that they were developed in part by Dr. Lovie using the Clitogram on herself.
Sometimes, though, even the most eager interview subjects struggle to make the boring thing they have to pitch not boring. Though I appreciate knowing about an AI-driven pool safety product called MYLO, billed as “the world’s first virtual lifeguard,” and a new AI-enabled air purifier called Trombe (“not an air purifier but an airborne dust cleaner”), I was not inspired by their creators’ stories of innovation, nor was I convinced that these devices actually are artificially intelligent. An academic director at Boston online college prep company Knovva Academy strove mightily to sell his company’s upcoming online Model G20, like a Model U.N. but about climate change. Compelling, perhaps, to some super ambitious parents of high schoolers, but not to me. I was more interested in how to pronounce his company’s name: Nova. “I have often advocated internally to get rid of the K,” he told me, a hint of sadness in his voice.
It’s worth noting that these 17 interviews represented just a fraction of the 162 publicist emails I received on Oct. 26. The vast majority were from record companies, movie studios, and book publishers, encouraging me to check out their upcoming releases—totally appropriate, since I write about music, movies, and books. I also received my nightly email from Entertainment Tonight, my “ET Exclusives,” the email from which I have tried and failed to unsubscribe for years now. (If you’re wondering, David Foster and Katharine McPhee’s musical son is surely following in his parents’ footsteps.)
Other emails didn’t offer interviews but invited me to various events, such as the Adams Morgan Apple Festival, the NYC Holiday Lights and Movie Sites Tour, an awards ceremony for the mayor of Houston, and—per a pitch from a Latin record label—“un concierto de Lenier en Rancho 232 en Miami para pasar una tarde agradable en familia cantando los éxitos de su preferencia.” Much as I would have enjoyed a pleasant afternoon with the Cuban musician Lenier in Miami singing the hits of my choice with my family, I couldn’t make it.
I also frequently receive imperious emails suggesting I should run a post written by some CEO, or should tweet about a reality television star, or should post a random-ass photo. On Oct. 26, a publicist with the U.S. Navy Office of Community Outreach sent a photo of a guy aboard a cruiser in the Philippine Sea. Even though the photo is so banal that the URL of the page hosting it literally includes the words “routine operations,” I am including the photo and supplied caption here, in the patriotic spirit of yes:
Many emails dangled free samples, an offer Slate generally prefers I do not take publicists up on. But had I said yes to all those publicists on Oct. 26, I would now be the proud owner of the following products:
· A screen-free audio player for children
· A “smart” heating pad that also cools you if you get too hot
· Jalapeno-flavored beef jerky sticks
· DIY gingerbread house kits
· Hot sauce, frozen cranberries, and kimchi from woman-owned companies
· A shampoo, conditioner, and hair serum to combat hair loss
· A magnetic shelf that sits atop a kitchen range
· A “badass” carbon steel fire-pit tool
· A $250 indoor ball pit
· A $300 baby monitor
I also got an intriguing pitch about Myrkl, “the world’s first pre-drinking supplement,” a hangover-averting pill you take before you go out. Indeed, I got two emails about this product, two minutes apart. The first opened, “Hi xx, hope all is well!” The second: “Hi Dan, hope all is well!”
Why do people hire publicists? Why do people want to speak to the press? Sometimes it’s because you have a message you really, really want to get out there. Michael Letts, who’s so angry about vaccine mandates, told me his organization’s role is shifting from protecting cops with armor to protecting cops with his opinions. “I hear from law enforcement all the time who face new challenges and dangers,” he said. “They say, ‘Michael, we can’t speak out. We’re gonna sound like we’re whining.’ We’re serving as a mouthpiece, spokesperson, for issues that affect the safety of America’s officers.”
Others long to have their contributions recognized. Terry Knickerbocker, the acting coach, was forthright when I asked why he’d hired a publicist. “I think what I do has value,” he said. “I like to be appreciated. I like to be seen.” He spoke glowingly of Sam Rockwell, another client of his, who thanked him in every acceptance speech he gave during his 2018 awards run. “That’s appropriate. That’s good,” he said.
I feel for these people. (Well, maybe not the vaccine cop guy—sorry!) It is hard out there for the entrepreneur, the author, the life coach. You feel as if you’re failing your dream if you’re not going that extra mile. “I just wanted to make sure that there was not a single stone left unturned,” said Ardre Orie. (The Lipstick Monologues! Atlanta! Nov. 12!)
Let’s say, for example, that your dietary supplement company just raised $4 million in venture capital—wouldn’t you spend some of that money communicating to the world that a diet rich in Himalayan Tartary buckwheat is a crucial part of a healthy immune system? Jeffrey Bland, president of Big Bold Health, sure would, and he would additionally note that he considers BBH more of an immune health platform than a supplement company. “We just happen to have found a product that’s incredibly helpful for immune health, and we want to get that out there.”
The fact is, even the most successful startups endure rocky stretches. Sometimes you find you’ve got tens of thousands of handbags piled up in your St. Louis–area office, and you just need to move some product before the end of the year. Tami Lange started the purse company Save the Girls on her 50th birthday. She was inspired to create her purses, which feature transparent pockets for your phone, after her kids lost their phones and her sister told them to just tuck them into their bra straps. Lange still sounded outraged five years later: “I told my sister, ‘You have breast cancer! You can’t keep your phone in your bra!’ ” (Though the American Cancer Society notes that there’s no evidence that phones cause cancer, Lange saw a Dr. Oz documentary about it.) The company’s name has dual meanings, she says: “The breasts are called your girls, and my girls are my girls, and I want to protect all of them.”
Lange told me she used her girls’ college money to found the company. The purses made it into Oscar gift baskets, and then Lori Greiner, one of the hosts of Shark Tank, brought them on to QVC. But sales bottomed out during COVID. Hence: a publicist. “I’ve been interviewed locally on Fox, KUSK, Channel 4, and Channel 5,” she said. “But I thought, instead of being local to St. Louis, maybe I should try ChicExecs”—the PR firm who’d sent me an email about her—“to see if they can get more news out there even bigger.”
Does it work? Letts claimed he’s been inundated with calls from news outlets thanks to his publicist’s releases. Google News does not suggest that is true, but maybe! Other interviewees told me they talk to a reporter maybe once a month or so. One person was surprised enough to find me on her calendar that she had no idea what news-pegged topic we were supposed to be discussing, so I had to explain it to her.
I feel for the publicists, too, who are also just trying to make a living in the content economy. You started your own PR firm to pay off student loan debt, and now your only client is a spiritual healer. Some conscientious publicists, after I replied Yes, asked me what kind of story I was working on and how their client would fit in. I told them the truth: I was responding to every single pitch I got, to see what kinds of interesting people I’d meet. Many of those publicists never wrote me back again. Good for them! They did the curatorial, image-protecting work you hope you’d get from a public relations professional.
But the fact that I’m receiving all these pitches in the first place suggests that many, many publicists send out press emails blindly, to every email address they can buy, shotgunning them into the media world in hopes that just one might hit its target. Another way to say that, of course, is: You never know! Emails are basically free, and who can say which reporter will end up interested in your weird Taylor Swift casket?
Even this rude stunt of mine proves this to be true, in a way. One person I interviewed told me they pay their publicist $2,000 a month. “If you wanted to do publicity on the side, I bet there are a lot of people who would hire you,” they added, and in the moment, I was sure tempted. Two grand?! Just to send out a bad email that goes straight to my spam folder, because the publicist has never once sent me anything of interest? But yet here the client is, in a national publication. “I got a hit from Slate!” that publicist surely told their client, and who knows who might read this story, and click on a link, and be interested in what that client has to offer?
One of my favorite interviews in my whirlwind experiment in radical media positivity was with Gertrude Lyons, a Chicago-based life coach. Lyons’ publicist suggested I talk to her on how to make it through the holidays if you have body-image issues. And Lyons offered, honestly, a lot of good advice of the sort I will never actually follow, about talking with your family about your vision for the holidays. “So, if you have a vision around respecting feelings and telling the truth,” she said, “you, as Dad, can say, ‘I always overeat and I feel, like, awful,’ and then you can get the support of the family.” Yes! OK! I’m sure some dads could benefit from that advice.
Lyons told me she’s accepted that her line of work simply requires a lot of self-promotion, including hiring a publicist to get the podcast appearances and local news hits that pepper her media kit. In some ways, those efforts run counter to all she preaches to her clients about decoupling self-image from appearance. “I grew up in an environment where looking good was valued,” she said. “A lot of my work over the years has been learning to be OK when I’m, say, a little overweight.” But now she feels her livelihood depends on presenting a certain version of herself to the world, through her publicist and her interviews and her website.
“Is that what I’m all about?” she reflected. What if, she wondered, she didn’t hire that publicist? What if she didn’t promote herself? What if she had a website where it was just her, with no makeup, in a robe—would that work?
I told her I thought that maybe such a step might feel more honest to herself and to her clients. It might seem revolutionary, in a way. It might even stand out in an economy, a nation, overflowing with self-promoters, entrepreneurs, experts, do-gooders, coaches, hucksters.
“Maybe,” she said, sighing a great big American sigh. “But I haven’t evolved to that point, I guess.”