Essay on Frustrations of College PR Chief

December 11, 1998

From The Chronicle of Higher Education

Note: The Chronicle published this essay on the back page of the issue in which it appeared. I wrote it in frustration after noting that The New York Times had failed to run a photo that I had been assured would appear in a Sunday edition in 1998. This essay is available online to Chronicle subscibers only by clicking here: Defying Disappointment, a College Flack Hopes That Maybe, This Time, They’ll Publish His Story – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Phil Headshot 1a

Defying Disappointment, a College Flack Hopes That Maybe, This Time, They’ll Publish His Story


I was a high-school student lugging my tuba down the hallway, heading toward a rehearsal at a regional music festival. I was stopped by a man holding a camera, a gigantic model with a flash attachment, just like in the movies I’d seen in which an obnoxious newspaper photographer wearing a double-breasted suit and a fedora pops flashbulbs in the face of the beautiful, frazzled suspect in a murder trial. Something important was afoot.

The photographer wanted me to help him. He wanted me to pose for a shot publicizing the festival.

Hold on a minute, I thought. My teenage face had been relatively clear when I conducted my daily close inspection in front of the bathroom mirror that morning. Not a bad hair day, either. My clothes were definitely geeky, but I didn’t know that at the time, so I agreed to pose.

I quickly discovered the distortions forced by celebrity. The guy wanted me to blow a note on the tuba while inflating my cheeks and popping my eyes out like Eddie Cantor. (This was in the ’50s, and people knew who Eddie Cantor was.) I resisted the impulse to tell him that he was asking me to demonstrate an extremely poor embouchure, and that the tuba isn’t really hard to blow. I knew the score here; we were blending show biz and journalism, but I was cool with that. If I had to pose looking like an idiot to get my picture in the paper, that’s what I would do.

The photographer took a couple of shots, and I prepared myself for notoriety as I hustled along to my rehearsal. The photographer had said the photo would appear in the next day’s newspaper. I began to imagine readers across the area looking at me doing my tuba schtick. This would be great!

The next morning, as a carload of us were on the way to another rehearsal, we stopped at a coffee shop and I ran in, plunked down a dime, grabbed the morning paper, and headed back to the car to cash in on fame.

I had told everyone I knew to look for the picture. I was preparing my tale: “Yeah, I was just walking down the hall, and this guy says he wants a picture. I figured I’d go along with it, for fun.” I thought my notoriety would last a week or so.

The incident would be memorable, all right — not for the notoriety, but because it would foreshadow my future career. On that crisp autumn morning, I engaged for the first time in a pitiful ritual that has been repeated many times throughout my professional life.

I sat in the back seat and riffled quickly through the pages of the paper, ignoring everything that wasn’t a picture of me and my tuba. No headline, however arresting, would have slowed my search. “Comet Strikes California, Millions Killed,” “13-Year-Old Cures Cancer — Wins Local High-School Science Fair” … wouldn’t have seen them.

All the way through the paper I hurtled, even the sports section and comics. Couldn’t find it. I didn’t give up on the first pass, though. “It’s in here someplace,” I muttered to myself the second time through, as desperation began to strip me of the ability to reason clearly.

The photo never appeared, of course; not that day or the next. To my relief, no one really ridiculed me for crying wolf, and in time I got over my disillusionment.

Why was it, I now sometimes wonder, that I paid so little heed to this warning? What force drew me to court with such unremitting intensity that most capricious of mistresses, the press, pathetically following its siren song?

Because now, years later, I’m a public-relations guy, a flack, a mouthpiece, a press agent. And my early experience has become a sickeningly familiar scenario. Sometimes my plaintive cry is, “Where’s my story?” “Where’s my expert?” or “Where’s my president? My college? My student?” Sometimes it grows into a more existential question: “Where’s my next meal coming from?”

Whatever its hideous form, the same drama unfolds again and again. Resignation comes more quickly each time, though. I recover my equanimity, and move on. After all, I sometimes do succeed in getting the coverage I want, and I no longer ponder the prospect of standing in line at the soup kitchen.

I’m the fella who fashioned a killer press release that moved The Philadelphia Inquirer to run a banner headline and a 15-inch story about a gathering of biologists who study the Allegheny wood rat. And yet — and yet — not a word in the major dailies about the Middlebury College scientist who discovered a species of insect that attacks and destroys the noxious milfoil, a lake-infesting weed. This biologist’s many years of painstaking work defined an environmentally safe way to rid property owners of the ubiquitous water plant that clogs and destroys bodies of water across the country. It may not be “sexy” research, but it’s what good scientists do, and it deserved to be noted — as does so much of the work done by faculty members.

I always feel a sense of betrayal when I’m disappointed. It is not that I’m naive; I don’t expect a particular story or photo or video clip to appear unless I’m set up for it.

For two years running now, I’ve been assured that footage of Middlebury’s graduation would be part of the roundup of college-commencement stories that the NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw airs each May.

Nope. Neither year.

Yet they called me and told me to look for it. Both times. I didn’t even ask anyone if it would run.

NBC’s cheerful intern: “Hi. … I’m just calling to let you know that your college will be featured on our commencement roundup on Tuesday night.”

Gullible flack: “Wow! Thanks! I’ll let the president know.”

When will I learn? Acting on such an assurance is like crawling out on a limb and telling some greedy logger that the branch is premium-grade white oak, and that there’s a chain saw and a ladder right next to the tree.

This familiar trauma was repeated on a recent weekend. A story about admissions tours was supposed to include a photo featuring my institution, in the Sunday edition of The New York Times, that apex of journalistic prestige. Placing a story or photo there is what we higher-education flacks universally regard as an “out-of-the-park” media hit. It makes us heroes in our own eyes, and sometimes even in the eyes of our bosses.

So once again, I picked up the paper that weekend and turned to the contents page. I’d spoken to the photo editor. I’d spoken to the writer. “It’s definitely a go,” the latter told me.

I see nothing. Probably turned out to be just a short item — doesn’t get billing as a feature story. The photo will jump out when I get to the right page. Won’t it?

Like Sisyphus in Hades, I push the rock back uphill, knowing full well that it will roll down again to crush my hopes that public attention will accrue to me and mine.

Why am I telling you all this? To explain, perhaps, why on a bad day on a New England campus — a day on which you should have heard more about that campus than you did — you might see a dejected flack clutching a sheaf of news releases, shaking his head, a tear on his cheek, murmuring something incoherent about a tuba.

Phil Benoit is director of public affairs at Middlebury College.