Interview with the Reporter | Part 3 in the 2018 PRSA Media Day Chronicles
Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist who has contributed to nationally read publications for nearly three decades. I had the opportunity to quiz him via email about his experience as a journalist and his advice to PR pros in preparation for Cincinnati PRSA’s Media Day on Thursday, October 18 and here’s what he had to say:
- How long have you been freelancing for national publications?
It was the winter of 1874 when I… OK, it just feels like that long. I started off as an associate editor at Popular Ceramics, which was a national magazine but not known for journalism, in late 1992. After the publication was sold a few days before Christmas, and I watched some guys carry my desk out to a truck, I managed to get a job at a teen entertainment magazine called BOP, which was very national but also not known for its journalism (but I’m not disparaging it; it was a ton of fun to work for and write for, and my coworkers were very talented, much more so than I).
Anyway, I started freelancing for national publications in 1993 and 1994. My first major publication was an essay with Weight Watchers Magazine. I wrote about my battle with my weight, which I completely lost, by the way… although this year, I’ve lost about 30 pounds, so maybe I haven’t completely lost the war. Anyway, after that, I started writing for A&E Monthly, a cable network magazine, and Entertainment Weekly and just kind of went from there.
- Since you wrote for several entertainment magazines, what was your most memorable celebrity interview and why?
While I interviewed a lot of teen celebrities – who were popular in the 1990s – I did a phone interview with George Clooney for Entertainment Weekly, and that stands out because, well, it was George Clooney. It was probably a 15-minute call, if that, and unfortunately, only a line or two from the interview was used, which I thought was nuts. Because, again, it’s George Clooney. And it was fun because midway in the interview, he was interrupted by a phone call. So, he got that, and when he got back on the line, he told me it was his dad – who, of course, is Nick Clooney, and who I used to watch anchoring the evening news in Cincinnati. And since I grew up living near Cincinnati, it felt like I had this glimpse of home.
Unfortunately, most of my coolest interviews were all over the phone. I got to talk to Bob Denver of “Gilligan’s Island,” and Ann B. Davis (Alice from “The Brady Bunch”), Ed Asner, Norman Lear and Robert Wagner, among others, and it was about as enjoyable and surreal talking to them as you would imagine. Robert Wagner was enthusiastic when I told him I was from Ohio. He said he had golfed there and called it “God’s country.”
- How did you fall into the beat of a business writer?
Well, I do a lot of beats. I mostly write business articles, but I also write a lot of personal finance articles. It’s pretty even between those two beats. When I get a chance, I do general interest articles, and I write occasional corporate histories for companies. I have an agent and have written a few books. I love all kinds of writing.
- When are you most satisfied with your job?
That’s a hard one to answer. I generally always like my job, but the most satisfied is probably just those moments when you’re in the “zone,” and you’re really enjoying the writing process and forgetting about everything else. It doesn’t happen enough. I juggle a lot of deadlines, but there are times, probably with every article, even if it’s just a few seconds, where I’m at one with the article, and now I sound really hokey.
- When do you not like your job?
There are a lot of little pet peeves that I have, but I generally like what I do and rarely strongly dislike it. If I wind up with too many deadlines in a week, I feel like I’m racing through the week and not able to slow down and enjoy my work, which is a bummer. Sometimes, editors have to wedge in search engine optimization terms that really make an article clunky. That’s a drag.
- What is the most significant project or accomplishment of your journalism career and what did you learn from it?
I’ve written two books that were a big deal for me – C.C. Pyle’s Amazing Foot Race and Washed Away. These were projects where I had to submit a sample chapter and convince publishing houses that these nonfiction stories were worth publishing and I spent years on both books. It’s hard to say what I learned from it, but I loved writing those books and wish I had more time to write more.
- What is the worst moment of your career and what did you learn from it?
Thankfully, I haven’t had any terrible moments – or if I have, they’ve receded into the background, and they don’t haunt me. But one story that might be of interest – years ago, when writing an article for The Cincinnati Post, I wrote some article about a homebuilder. About two months after the article came out, the homebuilder contacted my editor and told him that my quotes were made up, and he never did an interview with me. That was a low moment, of course, and it was infuriating. And then I remembered that a PR person had set up the interview and had been on the phone interview with us. I called the PR person, who vouched for me with my editor that the quotes were accurate, and the interview had happened, and the homebuilder dropped his complaint after that. The article wasn’t even that negative, but it was about McMansions and whether the industry should be scaling back on them, and I don’t think the housing industry was doing well at the time. But, anyway, I was very grateful to that PR specialist. That could have been a worst moment for me. Actually, I’d say the worst moment was during the Great Recession. I went almost a month without an assignment, which had never happened, and for about a year I wondered if I’d have to find work in something other than writing to keep things afloat.
- What's the one story you'd most like to cover yourself?
If I had the time and energy, it would be fun to do political writing. I’d love to write more books. But I don’t have one particular story that I’d love to cover myself. I’d like to think that if I did, I’d have already written it.
- What's the biggest change you've seen in journalism over the years?
Wow, a lot. I started my career in the fall of 1992, and I was freelancing by 1993, and so I remember actually going to the library to do research because I didn’t have the internet. And I cannot imagine surviving this career without the internet. But I’d say the biggest change has been with how fast everything moves. I do more email interviews than I ever did, because it’s faster. Everything get published faster – I do write for publications that can take weeks or months to publish articles. But often, I’m turning in a story, and it’s published the next day. Of course, that used to happen when I wrote for The Cincinnati Post. But even magazine writing is more like the newspaper industry now.
- What type of content do you stop to click on?
Whatever interests me. I like reading about politics, and so I’ll read about that as a break. But I enjoy the entertainment industry and will read entertainment-related articles. I, of course, try to stay up on the latest personal finance and business articles. Whatever looks interesting, I’ll click on.
- What's your best piece of advice for a PR person?
Don’t take anything personally. I might have six deadlines in a week, so I can get bad at answering emails even from PR people who I know very well and like working with. I think it’s important to remember that we’re under a lot of pressure to meet deadlines and get articles right. Don't take it personally if we seem to ignore your emails. I always feel bad when I ignore emails, but sometimes, I just feel like I don’t have time to answer them. I get so many emails from PR people. I’m talking easily 100 a day. Maybe more. Maybe less. I don’t count them up every day. I do realize, though, that PR people are under a tremendous amount of pressure as well, especially when you have clients who want coverage, and they want it now and don’t get why journalists aren’t eager to write about how awesome their company or brand is, and believe me, I feel for you.
About Geoff Williams
Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist who lives with his two teenage daughters in Loveland, Ohio. He specializes in writing about personal finance and business issues, but his articles have appeared in wide range of publications, including U.S. News & World Report, Entertainment Weekly, Life magazine, American Express OPEN Forum, Forbes.com, Entrepreneur magazine, Boys’ Life, National Geographic Kids, Archaeology Digest, Weight Watchers Magazine, Disney Adventures, The Washington Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, Parenting, Reuters, Al Jazeera America and CNNMoney.com. Around the turn of the 21st century, when the internet was making short work of newspapers, he also spent a few years as a feature’s reporter for The Cincinnati Post.
Williams has written several nonfiction books, including C.C. Pyle’s Amazing Foot Race, an account of a cross-country foot race in 1928 from Los Angeles to New York, and Washed Away: How the Great Flood of 1913, America's Most Widespread Natural Disaster, Terrorized A Nation and Changed It Forever.
Topics: Public Relations
I have an appetite for getting things done. As an advertising and corporate communications leader, I am experienced in bringing people, as well as animals, together. I have led cross-departmental teams and developed trusted relationships with C-Suite executives. I have 20 years of public relations and marketing communications experience, including providing traditional, digital and social media services to billion-dollar brands. I don’t believe in lengthy processes or convoluted platforms. I believe in hard work, empathy and love.