Roger Ebert, the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, died on Thursday at the age of 70 after a long battle with cancer. He was a former colleague, but to say I knew him well would be an overstatement. To say he was an inspiration is an understatement.
As a lowly Web editor walking into the Sun-Times newsroom in 2007, there was no figure more awe-inspiring than Roger Ebert. I was immediately intimidated and paranoid that I would ever make a mistake when making any kind of change or tweak on RogerEbert.com.
As I quickly came to learn, there was nothing to fear. While journalists can often flash their credentials in your face or big-time you, Ebert was always accessible and willing to help young journalists. I’m not sure how many emails I sent him during my time as his colleague and then after, but I can tell you that he always responded—often impossibly quickly.
For an interview on sister site PR Daily last April, Ebert was kind enough to answer a few questions about his experience with PR professionals and social media. Here’s that Q&A:
How has your involvement with social media—Twitter, Facebook and your blog in particular—helped you connect with fans of yours (and movie fans in general) over the last few years?
It gave me a much better sense of audience. The comments on my blog, in particular, have been like an ongoing conversation, and despite my initial misgivings I have been astonished at their high quality. I vet every one, and am not forced to kill half a dozen in a month.
You’ve received some negative attention following some controversial tweets in the past. What have you learned from these experiences?
Be very, very careful with your wording. Nuance and irony are lost on many readers, especially the very ones who feel called upon to respond with vulgarity.
In your career I’m sure your interactions with public relations pros has probably run the gamut from positive to negative. As a film critic, how has your perception of PR evolved over the years?
Movie publicists, at least, tend to be expert, reliable, and trustworthy. In years of covering film festivals I’ve been impressed by their dedication—particularly those trying to win attention for indie and foreign films. I could name you a few films that essentially owe their success to publicists at Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, or SXSW.
Certain publicists don’t take a film unless they personally believe in it, and journalists tend to discover who they are. There was one publicist in particular who would recommend films that weren’t even her clients. The good PR people truly love movies.
What role have you seen social media start to play in movies? Obviously, “The Social Network” was a hit in 2010, but social networking has also become a common plot device (frequently in romantic comedies). Do you see this as just a reflection of the zeitgeist or a crutch for filmmakers?
Social media has not really taken over from the (cell) phone, because it’s a nuisance to require audiences to read a lot of messages. A Facebook “relationship” status change may be mentioned, but plots don’t dwell. Computer screens are not photogenic. It’s more cinematic to show both ends of a phone conversation than two people at keyboards.