July 22, 2007

Switching sides, not jobs

an interview with...


Pollack Communications

In 1980, Rich Pollack was a cop reporter for the Sun-Sentinel. In 1989, he was an assistant city editor for the Sun-Sentinel. In 1994, he was the mouthpiece for the Sun-Sentinel.

In 15 years, Pollack went from journalist to “corporate communications manager” – and part of his job was being interviewed by other journalists. He also wrote speeches for Sun-Sentinel executives and published Between Editions, the paper’s biweekly internal newsletter.

These days, he runs his own corporate communications company – and he’s writing just as much as he did as a reporter. It can be a speech for an insurance executive, a newsletter for the Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce, or a "strategic communication plan" for Horses and the Handicapped of South Florida. He and his wife Carol have also ghost-written a book.

“Writing is my passion,” Pollack says. “There’s a line in Spiderman when Peter Parker’s uncle tells his nephew, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ As writers and editors, there are times when our words carry enormous consequences. The power of those words should never be taken for granted.”

What's the biggest lesson you learned when you went from reporter to editor?

There are two.

The first I learned during my time as a night editor. I had a stack of stories to edit, but one of our reporters was working on a breaking story and was having trouble. Being an old cop reporter, I picked up the phone and chipped in. A short time later, another editor called me, wondering why he wasn’t seeing more stories being processed. When I told why, he calmly imparted these words of advice: “You can’t do your job when you’re doing someone else’s.”

The second lesson is about treating reporters with respect and dignity. Another editor told me that it’s often best to criticize the work but praise the individual. Most good writers are proud of their work, so harsh criticism can shatter their confidence. If a reporter is told that he or she did a good job on a story as a whole but that the structure could use work, they’re more likely to come up with a better final story.

What's the biggest lesson you learned when you went from an editor to spokesman?

Coming from a newsroom, it’s easy to assume that the hours on the business side are easier and more reasonable. Big mistake.
The work requires a lot of new skills, and there are twice as many balls in the air to juggle. For me, the change in tone and mission were tough obstacles to overcome.

When working in a newsroom, you have to write for the reader. When writing public relations or corporate communications, your focus is more on writing for the speaker. Those who understand how to do both at the same time are the ones who have the greatest chance of success.

What's the biggest lesson you learned when you went from spokesman to business owner?

You learn about the dangers of “The Oprah Factor.” When no one is standing over your shoulder and you’re working from home, it’s easy to go into the family room and turn on Oprah. Those who succeed resist the urge to discover the latest addition to the Oprah book club and instead handle the tasks at hand or look for ways to create new opportunities.

Which job was the hardest: reporter, editor, spokesman, or communications business owner?

For me, the hardest was probably working as an editor, because managing people is challenging. Managing journalists is something only a very few can do well – and I’m not one of them.

Here’s why it’s so tough: As an editor, we tell our reporters to go out and not take “no” for an answer. Yet when they come back to the newsroom, we expect them to take direction without question. Reporters need to question authority, even if the authority is an editor. It should always be that way.

Best part of your job now? Worst part?

When you own a business, it’s satisfying to watch it grow and, just like a little kid, stand on its own feet. There’s also a tremendous sense of freedom and flexibility knowing that when you have many clients, you can walk away from one or lose one and survive. Still, you never want to let that happen.

The down side is that if you don’t work, you’re not making money, especially if you’re a one- or two-person business. Vacations are hard to come by, and you probably end up working seven days a week.

Your opinion of South Florida newspapers when you first got in the business? Now?

I’ve been in the business for 30 years and have to say that the papers are better, by and large, than they were when I first got here. The quality of writing is actually better in some cases.

That said, there’s some concern that over time, newspapers have lost their sense of humor a little bit and forgotten the importance of generating the “Hey Mabel” stories.
People love the offbeat and the quirky – that’s why Judge Judy is still on the air and why a story about a man suing his dry cleaner for $50 million is headlines.

But newspapers tend to focus more these days on their role as keepers of the record. There doesn’t seem to be the hometown feel we had a few years back, when the high-school homecoming parade was just as important as a drug-related shooting.

The future of newspapers as you see it?

Newspapers will be with us for a long time, but they’ll need to be more entertaining, more creative, more relevant to the interests of time-starved readers – and more provocative.

Most readers would probably tell you that they’d rather know why there was a police car on their block last night than read about another shooting in a drug-infested neighborhood. Yet newspapers continue to place their resources on what they see as the bigger story. We’ll see that start to evolve, especially if newspapers want to keep readers.

One piece of advice you'd surgically implant into the skulls of new grads and young professionals?

For anyone going into corporate communications or public relations: Never lie, never lie, never lie.

For those who want to be journalists: Writing is a craft that takes years to learn. There are some freelance writers who are frustrated because they’re not able to get a fulltime job as a writer. But the truth is, to really be considered a writer, you have to go through an apprenticeship of sorts and really hone your skills. And you darn well better know what AP style is and how to use it.