UMass alumnus speaks on relationship between journalism and public relations

By Shelby Ashline

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Daily Collegian File Photo)

(Daily Collegian File Photo)

University of Massachusetts alumnus and current Trustee Larry Carpman spoke to roughly 25 students and faculty of the journalism department Monday during his talk, “Journalism and Public Relations: Where’s the Line These Days?”

The roundtable discussion, which began at 4 p.m. and required students to reserve their seats in advance, allowed Carpman to discuss his extensive experience working in the fields of journalism and public relations, and to what extent the work overlaps – a line he says is “very thin these days.”

Growing up in the Boston neighborhood of Mattapan, Carpman’s interest in journalism was sparked by working at his high school newspaper, according to the UMass journalism website. He continued this passion by writing for the Daily Collegian during his time at UMass, also serving as news editor before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and political science in 1975.

After graduating, Carpman had every intention to pursue journalism as a career, but received an unexpected offer to become the press secretary for the Massachusetts Office of Energy Resources in the early 1980s.

“I said, ‘No way, no how, I’m a journalist,’” Carpman told the group.

He was concerned that, if he were to take the job, editors wouldn’t consider him for any positions in the future. But, after seeking reassurance from the late UMass journalism professor Howard Ziff, Carpman accepted the job.

Since then, Carpman has held numerous positions, including positions on high profile political campaigns. He served as Sen. John Kerry’s Washington D.C. press secretary for 12 years and as a media relations advisor to the Kerry family during the presidential campaign; a communications advisor to Gov. Deval Patrick in his 2006 campaign as well as his senior communications strategist in the 2010 re-election campaign.

More recently, Carpman has become an adjunct professor at Boston University’s School of Communications and a member of the UMass Board of Trustees.

When Carpman first launched his career, the media environment was quite different than it is today, he said.

“The gulf used to be much wider,” he said. “Things were more defined.”

He added there were fewer news organizations competing for readers, as the focus was on covering newsworthy events.

“Because of the Internet, we have more of what I like to call an alphabet soup situation,” he said. “I believe that these days, because the media is so segmented … they have to persuade.” Websites could easily vanish “if they don’t get clicks” and thus must engage in their own public relations, in a way, by persuading people to read.

Carefully crafted headlines are one method.

“Word choice is persuasion in and of itself,” Carpman said.

In addition, advertising has come heavily into the mix, with sponsored content appearing in close proximity to news stories.

He also offered tips for practicing effective public relations which are all based off of what Carpman calls “persuasion elements.” The five elements are emotion, credibility, repetition, control and risk.

“Whatever you write, you’re going to find some emotional piece to it,” Carpman said, referring to both journalism and public relations. “You don’t have to make it up.”

Emotional or even amusing anecdotes are complemented by third party validators or data, which then add credibility to a piece, he said. The repetition element comes into play frequently in speech writing and advertising, so frequently that Carpman cited a roughly 10-year-old study which stated that someone is trying to persuade each individual of something at least 500 times per day.

“A lot of times you need to repeat yourself to get through the 500,” he said, using television ads that repeat themselves so much that they frustrate the viewer, as an example.

Meanwhile, public relations advisors and newspapers alike seek to control the message in order to attract readers.

“In order for the New York Times to convince you to click, click, click, they need to control the message,” Carpman said. That message is conveyed through the stories they choose and new features that are added to their website.

However, Carpman emphasizes the importance of taking risks too, perhaps straying from the usual message.

“If you’re just content to go through the motions without any risk, you’re going to fail to persuade at some point,” he said.

Shelby Ashline can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Shelby_Ashline.