Feeding the media

Many Marylanders remember Bill Toohey from his press briefings during the Joseph Palczynski hostage crisis and his frequent appearances on the evening news. The director of media relations for the Baltimore County Police and former spokesman for Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski recently discussed the public relations business and what makes a good representative.

More and more people have press representation now. Congressman Gary Condit hired someone to answer media questions during his troubles. What has changed? It seems like it must be a tremendously growing business.

What's changed is the voraciousness of the media appetite for what may or may not be news, and the response by people who are the focus of those stories to have some way to deal with it. Now, in the public sector, there have been press people for years and years because the public has a right to know and government has a responsibility to get that word to them. But what I do find -- I've been in the communications business, God help me, since 1966 -- there's a much greater aggressiveness now on the part of the media to get information. They are looking at things that have never been looked at before. The classic contrast I suppose is John Kennedy's sex life versus Bill Clinton's. There's a much more aggressive behavior on the part of the media. There is much more media. Five years ago I would not be talking to Jon Goldstein of SunSpot; you wouldn't be here. Cable TV, I've been struck by the number of hour-long documentary programs I'm seeing on cable TV programs. More people are coming to news sources or news generators, like me, wanting more information to be put out in more different forms.

Does that create more work for you?

Well, yeah. Again, you and I are talking; we wouldn't have been doing that five years ago. Over the weekend there was a production company in here doing a program for the History Channel on [Joseph C.] Palczynski; that wouldn't have happened 10 years ago. So it does [create more work] because there are more inquiries. If people in government -- the actual service providers, the police officers, teachers, whoever -- are to do their jobs, they're going to need someone to deal with the media for them.

You mentioned the Palczynski hostage standoff. Was that the single biggest story that you have been involved with?

It is the single biggest story I've been involved with. It was, perhaps, one of the single biggest events of my life. Yes, that was the single biggest news story I've been involved in either as a reporter or on the public sector side.

You were so visible during the entire crisis, out in front of the cameras morning, noon and night. Was it hard, being on a local and national stage like that, to remember that this isn't a story about you?

It was never a story about me, and I never even thought of it as a story about me. I've been in national media. I've been a newscaster for the ABC/FM radio network. I was NPR's New York bureau chief for two stints, totaling about six years. I was a writer/producer for NBC radio. I know that the national media is simply another bunch of people that go to work every day. Any good PR person identifies their target audience. Who are they trying to reach? On Palczynski I had three target audiences in three concentric circles. The first audience that I was acutely aware of at every given moment was the people inside that house at 7520 Lange St. The second audience, a wider concentric circle, was the people in the community around us, to let [them] know that everything was going to be OK. The third circle was the people of Baltimore County, to let them know that they had a professional and competent police force, an excellent police force. But anybody else, I didn't really care. Which was very difficult for the networks to understand. You mean you don't want to be on "Good Morning America?" Because what would being on "Good Morning America" do for us then?

What makes a good media relations representative?

You've got to know the needs of the people with whom you're dealing. You've got to understand what TV wants. You've got to understand what the print media wants. You've got to understand what the weeklies want versus what the dailies want. You've got to keep on top of things like these documentaries that are popping up now on cable. It's a whole new thing. A very important thing is to understand the media side of things. What are their needs? Can I meet them? You must understand the client, the organization for whom you work. You've got to understand, appreciate at a very gut level, what makes that entity tick. And then you have to be able to convey that to the media. If you're wonderful on the organization but don't do media, you're not much good. If you understand everything there is about the media but you're at sea when it comes to working for your organization, then you can't do it. You have to be able to bring equal attention to both sides, the client and the news media.

How do you gather information and then decide what to disseminate?

Whenever I go to a crime scene I find out, first of all, who's in charge. Because if you're talking to the wrong person, whether it be [about] a homicide or something very benevolent, forget it. This applies for everything. I imagine this applies for someone in an insurance company doing PR. Who's in charge here? Who can give me the accurate information that I need? Then at a homicide I would go, what do we know and what can I say? Because in a criminal investigation you can't always say everything you know. Some information we can give out, we want to give out. Some information we have to withhold. But we can't lie. For instance, we always say just that a handgun was used. We never say a nine-millimeter, a .45, or a .38. And reporters will always say why? I will say we're not going to tell you that because there are some things we want only us and the bad guy to know. I don't say, "No comment."

What's the hardest part of the job?

The hardest part is the things people never see. Acquiring the information isn't so difficult anymore. The hardest job is organizing the information, finding a way to present it to the media in a way that respects their needs but respects the integrity of a criminal investigation. We may have a very sensitive case involving a sexual assault. One has to be incredibly careful about how you deal with that. On the other hand you can't be so careful that the reporters think you're trying to hide something.

You began your career on the other side of the microphone, as a reporter. When did you decide to make the switch?

It was a two-step thing. In 1985 I'd been working for ABC radio news in New York when the format of the network was changed to a hard rock 'n' roll format. I could not adapt and my contract was not renewed. I did a lot of freelancing and what I noticed was radio jobs in New York were drying up. Under deregulation, radio stations were no longer required to carry news, and they didn't. I found fewer and fewer full-time jobs in New York in radio. That's part one. My wife is from Baltimore. We came down here to work for WJHU. I had a good time at WJHU for about a year and a half when, again, economic issues forced Hopkins to cut the size of the news staff from six to two. I was one of the two that was to be saved, but I could see that it was happening down here just like it had happened in New York. The jobs were drying up. At that point the Schmoke administration was coming in. I knew slightly the housing commissioner. He was a Hopkins professor and our paths had passed a couple times. I contacted him, asked if he wanted a good, experienced journalist for his PIO, and I got the job. That’s how it happened. When Hopkins' staff was cut I just said time to move on. At that point by the way, that was 1987, I had children ages 7, 5 and 3.

Do you have any advice for aspiring media relations people?

Keep up with the media. I have seen such changes in the last 10 years in communications. It is almost dizzying. We subscribe to The New York Times at home as well as The Sun. I picked up the Times this morning and realized that three stories on the cover page I had read last night on my computer. There is this rapid flow of information and trying to keep a handle on this is going to be the biggest challenge. There is an information glut now. The news staff at SunSpot or Channel 11 or Channel 13, they are having a hard time sorting through what information there is, so how do you, the PR guy, get their attention? There's no easy answer for that. I get their attention because they're interested in crime. But there is more information, it's flowing more rapidly and you have to understand that it's harder to manage for both the generators of information, the PR people, and the receivers, the news media. Somehow, you have to learn to deal with that.

The business is changing. Any business, whether it be microbiology or information, you've got to keep on top of what's happening.