Lorrie Helm had never been in the public eye. But reporters clamored for her attention after ex-husband Buck was found trapped amid the rubble of the October, 1989, earthquake that sent a portion of Oakland's Nimitz Freeway tumbling onto his Chevy Sprint.
TV executives telephoned her. Movie producers begged for her attention.
"Reporters chased me down the hospital floor. The telephone never stopped ringing. Messages were slipped under our hotel room door. We kept getting crazy offers--some so ridiculous they made me cry," said Helm, whose ex-husband was rescued but eventually died from his injuries.
The pressure became too great. But Lorrie Helm didn't turn to a doctor or psychiatrist. She hired a Beverly Hills public relations firm. Within hours all inquiries were being screened by someone she hadn't even known a few days earlier.
Welcome to modern-day PR.
"Instead of saying, 'See my attorney,' you say, 'See my publicist,' " said Walter Lubars, chairman of Boston University's School of Mass Communication and Public Relations.
Not too many years ago, it was oh-so-hip to hire a personal guru who could discern your yin from your yang. More recently, just about everyone but the guy at the doughnut shop seemed to have a personal body trainer. But these days, especially in media-conscious Los Angeles, there always seems to be a public relations specialist in tow.
We're not talking about actors and athletes. Everyone knows they have well-paid publicity mills. We're talking ophthalmologists and French chefs. Dog groomers and dentists--particularly Beverly Hills dentists who specialize in smile reconstructions. We're talking plastic surgeons and stockbrokers. Rheumatologists and CPAs use them. So do Westside philanthropists and chichi landscapers--especially those who plant bougainvillea in Bel-Air.
Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev had one when he visited San Francisco. While he works to save elephants in Africa, paleontologist Richard E. Leakey has a publicist back in the States. Even a conservative branch of the Roman Catholic Church recently hired a public relations firm.
"It used to be only rock stars and soap opera wanna-bes who hired press agents," said Chris Barnett, senior editor of the Bulldog Reporter, a Berkeley newsletter written for public relations professionals. "Now, just about everyone does."
One Westside publicist who represents arts organizations was recently telephoned by a potential client.
"No, I don't handle ophthalmologists," Christine Anderson told the caller, "but I know someone who does."
The trend has reached deep into the Valley, even to Calabasas. A French chef there has hired a public relations firm to get her some ink. How to do that? Well, the firm sent out a press release that described Bernadette Millet as a pioneering woman "seeking more open respect" for female chefs.
All of this has some people asking: Is it getting a bit out of hand? Does everybody really have to have a PR person?
"It's a new slickness," said Vance Packard, author of the book "The Hidden Persuaders." "Public relations adds a gloss of phoniness to world opinion."
He should know.
"If you want to be a successful author, the first thing you do is hire a publicist," he said. "When I get a book out, some public relations person takes charge and runs me 47 places in one week."
What it really comes down to is this: "People just don't believe advertising," said Bulldog Reporter's Barnett. Most people will, however, believe what they read in newspaper articles or see on the TV news.
That is one reason why Dr. Vincent R. Forshan, a prominent plastic surgeon in Rancho Mirage, has occasionally hired public relations help--for monthly fees of as much as $3,000. He has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal and has even appeared on Cable News Network.
"Sure, I've used publicists. Lots of plastic surgeons do," Forshan said. "I'm a doctor, not a public relations specialist. You don't get on TV or in magazines without someone doing some of your homework for you."
Then there's Helen Stulberg, a landscaper to the stars. She has designed yards for foreign dignitaries, TV actors and studio chiefs. Her Westwood company, Affaires of the Garden, has hired two publicists over the last 10 years. Articles have been written about her in many newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the defunct Herald Examiner. Why hire a publicist? Said Stulberg, "There's a lot of competition out there."
One critic insists that journalism has become "polluted" with articles based solely on paid press releases. "These messages are usually manipulative," said Joan Konner, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. "But they get into the paper as journalism."