In the most political capital in the nation, United Press International’s Helen Thomas is almost a landmark. In fact, she has been more even-keeled than the very company which employs her, earning a name among the most respected – and veteran – reporters covering the White House, one of the most demanding beats in journalism. She has been covering US. presidents for nearly four decades.
Positioned a stone’s throw from one of the most powerful offices in the world, Thomas has become a media mainstay in D.C. However, while Thomas has achieved a kind of celebrity, she doesn’t demand diva treatment and has shied away from the limelight many of her peers invite, even covet.
The quintessential interviewer has only recently allowed the press to turn their attention to her. Thomas’ book, “Front Row at The White House,” was published this spring and Thomas recently agreed to be on the other side for an interview with Jane Pauley for “Dateline NBC.” She told Pauley something we think all PR pros need to be reminded about.
“They can always say, ‘I can’t discuss that or ‘no comment.’ I grant you, it’s tantamount to yes in my opinion.”
Last week, in a far less high-profile setting, Thomas attended a book signing at a National Woman’s Party gathering hosted by the Capital Press Women, Women’s Information Network and The Business Women’s Network. She was applauded for serving as a role model for women, and having endured a White House Press Corps era when women didn’t have the same access men did. The National Press Club didn’t open its membership to women until 1971 when its treasury was running low.
Thomas has weathered other battles, proving that even those in the ivory tower get rebuffed. After six years of requests to interview First Lady Hillary Clinton, she recently was given the go-ahead.
In turn, she gave 30-plus women a unique chance to meet with her last week at the NWP reception. And PR NEWS was there to speak with her:
PRN: You have a new book and you’re being interviewed a lot lately – what’s it like being on the other side, not being the one asking the questions?
Thomas: I’d rather ask the questions, but when you’re trying to promote a book, you definitely make yourself available. You’re trying to get a wider audience, to spread the word you’ve got something for sale.
PRN: How do you see the role of PR and media relations changing since you entered journalism? How do spokespeople and companies deal with the press versus when you first entered journalism?
Thomas: Not a lot has changed. I think that we always appreciate good public relations, when they’re very fair and very honest. And I think most have very high ideals. I’ve known a lot of people in PR. I have former colleagues who went into public relations and I think they keep the standards very high. So, I don’t think I’ve ever really been snookered by a public relations person. They’ve always been fair and square. We know what they’re selling, we know what they’re trying to do, and a lot of them can be very helpful when you’re trying to find something.
PRN: That’s a perfect segue into the last question, what is the best scoop – or pitch – you’ve ever gotten from a PR person?
Thomas: I can’t speak about one pitch, but the best press secretary I ever dealt with, who understood people, who understood the media’s needs – and had something great to sell – was Liz Carpenter. She was Lady Bird Johnson’s press secretary. She lit a fire in terms of the national beautification program that lives on forever.
It’s Lady Bird Johnson’s greatest legacy, but Liz was very much a part of creating this tremendous national interest – tearing down the big billboards and wiping out the auto junkyards – it was just a national movement that took fire. It was because of a great P.T. Barnum who was Liz Carpenter.
PRN: What skills did she possess that made her effective?
Thomas: She was a great spokeswoman because of enthusiasm, believing in the cause, selling it. If you don’t have a good cause, a worthwhile message, you really can’t promote it. She took us everywhere, she showed us the reality of what she was promoting.
We traveled with Lady Bird Johnson. We went to national parks, historic places long before Hillary Clinton [traveled in the U.S. and abroad] and long before the millennium. We went to the homes of some of the great presidents and poets and Colonial-era figures and those who blazed the independence trail. What made Liz an invaluable press contact was that she gave us access. That’s something all good spokespeople and PR people do, or should do.
Published in the May 1999 edition of PR News