The Conde Nast Traveler Readers' Choice Awards were held last week in New York. These are star-studded affairs. The format for the past few years has been for a winner to be announced by a pair of celebrity hosts (this year, Christine Baranski and Chris Noth), and then a well-known person who has a connection to the winning hotel, ship or destination comes out, talks about his or her connection and hands over the award to the winner.
Their comments are amusing in varying degrees. Celebrity chef Masaharu Morimoto showed a talent for improv comedy this year, turning his discomfort with teleprompters into an extended gag.
Tom Brokaw, noting his heavy travel schedule, said his wife jokes that he expects a chocolate on his pillow even when he's sleeping at home.
Stephen Colbert livened things up with the uninhibited, brash persona he has honed on "The Colbert Report." He was giving the award for "Top U.S. City" to his hometown, Charleston, S.C.
After noting that Charleston had previously been recognized as the politest city in the U.S., he said that no one in Charleston would ever consider gloating about its victory.
"But I'm not in Charleston right now," he said, and proceeded to taunt and ridicule the "Rice-A-Roni-eating bastards" of San Francisco, the previous year's recipient.
While at the awards, I ran into another star of sorts: Vivian Deuschl, the corporate vice president of public relations for Ritz-Carlton.
Vivian has endeared herself to many reporters, myself included, with her unique blend of professionalism, charm, candor and understanding of both a journalist's job and what's in the best interest of her employers.
Public relations folk run a wide gamut. On one end are those who simply issue press releases and follow up with a phone call to see if the release has been received.
On the other end is someone like Vivian, who acts as a two-way conduit of information. In addition to facilitating, for journalists, access to people and credible information from the company she represents, she provides sophisticated advice to the people for whom she works. She builds trust-based relationships on behalf of her employer.
Public relations professionals have an interesting duality to their role. They want good news broadcast as prominently and widely as possible, but their job also includes minimizing, through spin, context or persuasion, the impact of any news that might have negative repercussions.
Of course, there are limits to what can be done in either direction. She said that was made clear to her by my predecessor, the late Alan Fredericks.
When he was editor in chief of Travel Weekly, she worked in public relations at ASTA. A report about a regional ASTA meeting appeared in Travel Weekly on Page 81. Her boss at the time was upset, called Vivian in and said she should complain that it wasn't on Page 1.
She called Alan.
"He told me, 'Let's make a deal. You stick with PR, and I'll focus on editorial. Don't tell me how to do my job, and I won't tell you how to do yours.'
"It was an important lesson, an important perspective," she said.
And there are the times when a story leaks before an organization is ready to disclose it.
For instance, in November 2009, Marriott was restructuring, integrating Ritz-Carlton more closely into Marriott's operational infrastructure. Our hotel editor at the time, Jeri Clausing, was the first reporter to learn about it, and she called Vivian for verification and comment.
"Initially, I couldn't get anyone [at Marriott] to talk with her," Vivian said. "But I convinced them Jeri would be fair."
The result was a balanced report, a major scoop for Travel Weekly and an increased level of trust all around.
I was dismayed, then, when Vivian told me that a current wave of restructuring has resulted in her losing her job. She'll be leaving Ritz-Carlton in early November.
At this point in her career -- she's been in public relations since 1963 -- she said she's not interested in looking for another full-time position but is still interested in consulting on projects.
It's great that other companies will be able to benefit from her unique skill set. In the world of public relations, Vivian Deuschl has as much star power as anyone who was on stage that night.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.