Editor's note: Former WTVT-Ch. 13 reporter and anchor Glenn Selig was among 22 people killed in an attack Sunday in a hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan. He was well known in the Jewish community and in the Tampa public relations scene. In 2007 his journalism career ended and his new one began in public relations. Former Tampa Bay Times TV/Media Critic Eric Deggans profiled Selig and the work he did for high-profile clients like Rod Blagojevich and Casey Anthony in 2009. This story was published on Feb. 16, 2009.
For some public relations professionals, it would be a horrifying prospect: sitting in a New York hotel room watching David Letterman carve up a client on national television with lines like "The more you talked ... the more I said, 'Well, this guy's guilty.'" Especially if that client is sitting next to you.
But Tampa publicist and crisis manager Glenn Selig sounds almost giddy when describing the Feb. 3 scene where he and impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich reviewed his Late Show performance. He's convinced that the smooth-talking politician won over some folks in an audience hooting for his humiliation.
"This was the most anticipated interview ... and I think he enjoyed it," said Selig, who had been hired weeks before as Blagojevich weighed going public to counter prosecutors' allegations that he tried to sell Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat. "You can't control what Dave is going to do, but you can control how you react to it."
Selig, 41, is a former Tampa TV journalist whose company, the Publicity Agency, boasts a client roster filled with the kind of newsmakers he used to cover. Besides Blagojevich, he represents Drew Peterson, a retired suburban Chicago police officer whose fourth wife disappeared and whose third wife's death has been ruled a homicide. Selig also briefly advised the attorney representing Casey Anthony, who is charged with first-degree murder in the killing of toddler daughter Caylee.
His journalism career ended abruptly — Selig was fired by Fox affiliate WTVT-Ch. 13 in 2007 after the company learned he had started a press release-writing business without permission. (Selig said he never took on a customer he might cover as a journalist.)
Suggest now that he might be doing the opposite of what he did as a reporter — representing the kind of public figures he once worked to expose — and Selig offers a different perspective.
"In a way, you're covering the big story in reverse," he said. "There are famous people who know me. ... I remember the first time my phone rang and it was Matt Lauer on the phone. Sean Hannity called. Wolf Blitzer called. ... (And) I know what tomorrow's big story is going to be, because I'm in on the decision."
Of course, some other famous names have had less kind words for Selig.
Fox News personality Geraldo Rivera called him a "sleazy PR guy" when an interview with Blagojevich hyped on the cable news channel fell through, suggesting Selig was getting even for past negative coverage of Peterson.
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Last year, CNN Headline News personality Nancy Grace criticized him for allowing cameras to film Peterson's children, wondering why the former police officer was spending money on a publicist instead of the search for his missing wife.
Selig said Rivera was trying to pressure Blagojevich into an interview and dismissed Grace as unfairly biased. "The media has a responsibility to present a story fairly and objectively, (but) they attack as if the guy is already guilty," he said. "That saddens me."
Critics say figures like Peterson and Blagojevich are chasing media attention to feed their egos and spark opportunities, such as book or TV deals.
Selig argues that such appearances can counter unfair media coverage and prejudicial comments from law enforcement.
"We had to get attention," Selig said of Blagojevich's media tour. "It had to be dramatic. He had to go in the grandest fashion and yell at the top of his lungs, 'I didn't do this.'"
• • •
The call that changed Selig's life came while he was on a Disney cruise with his wife, Charyn, and young children, daughter Drew and son Joshua, at the end of 2007. It was Peterson's attorney with an intriguing proposal.
How would he like to represent the most controversial husband in America?
Peterson already had an awful public image, behaving oddly during interviews about his missing 23-year-old wife and attempting to participate in a dating contest overseen by a Chicago shock jock. Selig met with the retired officer in Orlando, weighing whether his potential client was misunderstood or someone looking to bamboozle the world.
"Do I know whether he did it or not? No, because I wasn't there," said Selig, who eventually brokered interviews with NBC's Today show and the Associated Press emphasizing Peterson's parenting skills. "Do I believe he did it? No. And because no one else knows, either, he needs to be presumed innocent. ... It's a noble cause to defend someone's image in the court of public opinion."
Tampa public relations professional Lisa Brock said publicists can hurt their own credibility by taking on too many clients who seem arrogant or fame-seeking. "There are people who only care about the spotlight and not the reason why it's shining," she added.
Brock said such high-profile cases can spark fees topping $2,500 per day, jump-starting a publicist's Rolodex. But clients can be unpredictable: Peterson, 55, made headlines for planning to marry 24-year-old Christina Raines, who called off the engagement in January, saying it was a publicity stunt.
But Raines backtracked, appearing on NBC's Today show Friday with Peterson; the report also said Peterson hoped to develop a book or reality TV show deal. "She announced their breakup on a morning show ... so it became important that they set the record straight," said Selig, who arranged the interview after the two reconciled.
Selig said an attorney for Blagojevich called after seeing him quoted in a newspaper story on handling the public image aspects of pop star R. Kelly's child pornography trial.
Selig's hire puzzled journalists, who wondered why an official facing impeachment in Illinois would enlist a Tampa-based guy representing a man who police say is a suspect in his wife's disappearance. (Peterson has not been charged in that case or in the homicide of his third wife, and has denied wrongdoing.)
"It seemed like the last thing a person who was insisting on his innocence would do," said Eric Zorn, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. "(But) once you have Blagojevich determined to do this, well, (Selig) booked him on all these shows and not one of them was a disaster. So I think Blagojevich got what he wanted out of it."
Selig declines to talk about his fees. Critics wonder how a retired Chicago officer or an impeached public official can afford a publicist who flies in and out of New York for media interviews at a moment's notice.
Even if Selig is working for free, the boost given his company — which includes a press release writing service and a Web site for dads — may be invaluable.
"It's gone better than I ever could have imagined," he said. "I think people appreciate that I'm looking out for this concept, that people deserve a fair hearing, whatever you believe about them."