As a journalist—especially one in the trade magazine business—I often depend upon public relations contacts to gather information, schedule interviews or get some questions answered. It’s a field that is remarkably uneven, however. Some companies have dedicated executives in charge of that function. In others, it’s relegated to people in the marketing, corporate communications or even human resources departments.
Early this summer, I had a chance to connect with one of my former contemporaries from Atlantic City, Glenn Lillie, who was the public relations director for the Claridge Casino Hotel in the heady action-packed early days of the local industry. We had gathered on the occasion of another old friend, Roger Wagner, visiting Atlantic City. Roger had been an executive with the Claridge in those days (and Glenn’s boss), later going on to lead Trump’s Castle and then becoming a high-level official in Jack Binion’s organization—one of the most successful gaming teams in history.
The three of us toured the two new properties in Atlantic City—the Hard Rock and Ocean Resort. At Ocean, Roger and Glenn waxed nostalgic about how much space there is at the property—and how little they had to work with at the Claridge. But we also discussed the PR nightmare that was Ocean’s predecessor, Revel. Glenn explained how Roger allowed him free reign in addressing the media and handling communications for the Claridge, something that is virtually nonexistent today.
And since our memory banks stretch far beyond the current day, we began to discuss the giants of the public relations field in the early days of Atlantic City—people like Carlo Sardella, Sid Ascher and Phil Wechsler.
Carlo was an award-winning reporter who wrote for prestigious newspapers and added commentaries on the radio. As a PR man for the Miss America pageant, he brought Marilyn Monroe to the Boardwalk in 1952, creating a sensation. He was one of the few to interview the Beatles when they played at Convention Hall in 1964. His specialty was human interest stories, and he never failed to deliver.
Sid Ascher was another legend. As a young man, he wrote the famous “Fala” speech delivered by Franklin Roosevelt (you youngsters can Google this to see why it was so important to America’s longest-serving president), and went on to an illustrious career as a “press agent”—the term used before “public relations” was coined. Not only was he a gifted publicist, but also a songwriter. He always grumbled that he made a terrible mistake when he sold the rights to “The Very Thought of You” for a few hundred dollars. He was the oldest casino employee at 84 years young in Atlantic City when he worked for Glenn as PR manager at the Claridge.
Phil Wechsler was a reporter for the New York Daily News for years before he became the public relations director for the first legal casino that opened outside of Nevada, Resorts International, in 1978. The interest in that new casino was overwhelming, but Phil handled it with aplomb and grace. He later moved into the operations end of the business at Showboat Atlantic City.
Yes, it was a different world in those days—the time before social media and instant gratification. Today’s public relations executives have a much more difficult task dealing with these elements of the media.
But I can’t help but wonder how these legends would have handled social media. They were so talented at disseminating information in their day using their reality, I imagine they would have adapted quickly and become true social media influencers.
I can imagine Sid “trending” on sites like Drudge or Politico. Maybe Carlo would get a million “likes” for his insightful posts on Instagram. And Phil could have easily developed a #hashtag campaign for any casino that wanted to increase its popularity.
So maybe public relations isn’t a lost art. Maybe it’s just evolving like so many other disciplines in this new world. After all, even the presidency has changed. Can you imagine the tweets that FDR would have put out at the height of the Depression when he was trying to “pack” the Supreme Court? (Google again, youngsters.)
So despite the fact that this column may make me sound like an old fogey longing for the “good old days,” quite the opposite is true. If you learn the lessons that our PR forefathers taught us, maybe we can make our reality that much better.