Every once in a while, a PR person gets to know a member of the media who develops into what we like to call a contact. Such was the case for me and Joe Rago, a long-time editorial-page editor at The Wall Street Journal, who died last month at the age of 34.
Joe mainly contributed editorials about healthcare to the Journal. He critiqued the U.S. healthcare system and its policies, particularly The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. As such, his views influenced decision-makers from Capitol Hill to the corporate C-suite. Senators and CEOs alike read, cited and indeed quoted his editorials.
Our connection to each other was basic. Almost any time our agency represented a healthcare client with a strong, perhaps surprising point of view about a healthcare issue, I would recommend a desk side briefing with Joe. If a client agreed, I then reached out to Joe to introduce said client and offer a rationale for a face-to-face meeting.
Joe always said “yes.” I only wish other media I’ve pitched during my 26 years in PR were consistently as welcoming.
Over the last seven years, then, I scheduled briefings with Joe for more than a dozen of our healthcare clients. Patient advocates. Hospital consultants. Insurance leaders. Medical-device manufacturers. Venture capitalists.
There, in those encounters, Joe turned out to be every inch both a student and a scholar. He asked his guests question after hard, informed question, and never hesitated to take issue.
Our clients were typically thrilled at these opportunities. So were my colleagues, and so, for that matter, was I.
To what, then, did I owe these modest successes? My personal magnetism? My genius at pitching? Hardly.
I was highly selective about which clients qualified for a briefing with Joe. I pitched those clients matter-of-factly, not only free of hyperbole but also heavy on understatement. All I ever expected — and received — was a fair hearing, plus an understanding of our client’s position.
But mostly I credit Joe. His curiosity about the nuances of healthcare, no matter how fine the small print, was quite simply insatiable. He routinely subjected his most dearly held convictions to discussion and debate. He took on all comers, everyone with an equal right to a day in the court of public opinion, demonstrating his faith in desk side briefings as acts of democracy
But what impressed me most about Joe Rago was how he acted at those briefings. He listened closely. He never interrupted. If he disagreed, it was done politely. Afterwards, he thanked all attendees.
With me, too, he was a model of decorum, whether in an email or over lunch. He treated me as if I were the important person in our relationship, whereas I often felt otherwise. If he took two days to answer an email from me, he invariably apologized. He was modest beyond reason, even after he won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorials at the age of 28.
As media contacts go, Joe ranked as perfect. But as my wife once told me, perfect never lasts. Rather, this is yet another reminder to prize the reporters whose trust and respect we’ve earned. And to maintain the same high standards, both professional and personal, that they usually do.
I’ll miss taking our clients to meet Joe. But mostly I’ll miss him.
Bob Brody is an earned media strategist and editorial specialist at Powell Tate, a division of Weber Shandwick. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, among other publications.