It’s no news that newspapers are dying. City dailies have suffered the worst of it because their operations are too costly to maintain what they once could. Over the past few years the Times of Trenton has been forced to make massive cutbacks that have taken more than 150 years of collective experience out of its newsroom.
One of the paper’s casualties was Peter Callas, who was the Times’ managing editor for 15 years. A 25-year veteran of the newsroom, Callas turned down a first-round buyout offer that slashed his editorial staff — he even made several impassioned appeals to those abandoning ship about the need for journalists to hang on — only to accept the deal offered to him a year later. By then the realities of modern newspapering had gutted a once-bustling newsroom and Callas knew he needed to move on.
But Callas now would have to take his PR/journalism degree from Utica College (Class of 1981) and his experience in the only career he had ever known and find something else to do with all of it. “Clearly I didn’t want to go to work for some corporate bigwig and write soft news,” he says. “Six months before my buyout I decided to take my credentials and shop around. It was scary from a wheelchair.”
Callas’ wheelchair is an extension of the muscular dystrophy he contracted at puberty. He could walk until the mid-1990s, but by then the chair had become inevitable. “I gave in because of a broken arm,” he says. He had been trying to stay ahead of his illness by working out. One day he fell while running on his treadmill and got stuck between it and the wall for more than two hours.
Callas’ then-girlfriend, now wife, Toni, found him after she went to see why he had not been answering his phone. The friction burns and other injuries were severe enough to put Callas in rehab for six weeks. “I never got my legs back under me,” he says. “So I gave in and used the chair.”
A decade later, facing a future in corporate communications written from a cubicle, unemployment (since no one seemed to have a use for yet another ex-journalist), or putting his news experience to use for himself, Callas opted start his own crisis consulting and public relations firm. In April PGC Communications was born.
As he was at the Times, Callas is surrounded by media pros. His partners at PGC are Anita Shaffer, a former editor with him at the Times who still writes a business column for the paper; Roger Shatzkin, a public affairs specialist who served as New Jersey’s first Homeland Security spokesman; and Marc Kirschner, a longtime PR and branding specialist who has worked with Burton Marsteller and Sequel Studio. The company has developed five clients in its first year, including Catholic Charities, the Delaware Nation Indian Tribe, and the Progressive Center for Independent Living.
A key advantage for the company is Callas’ list of contacts. Over the years he came to know many groups and businesses intimately. His relationship with Catholic Charities, run through the Diocese of Trenton, worked out well for both of them right off the top.
Among its many social services, Catholic Charities places children into adoptive families. In 1975 Ron Ryba and his high school sweetheart gave their son up to the agency. Twenty-eight years later the Maryland couple met their son, Phil Bloete, outside Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia.
Or so they thought. As it turned out, Bloete was not the Rybas’ son. The records had been confused back in 1975, and it looked as if Catholic Charities was to blame.
The story got a fair amount of press here and in Maryland, but soon blew over. Then a team from Good Morning America, having read the story of the reunion fiasco in the Baltimore Sun, called Catholic Charities and said they would be coming down in another day to interview the agency.
Callas coached the diocese through the process with a fundamental rule — make sure the reporters did not take over the interview. It was strange for Callas to hear himself give such advice, but he knows the trouble bad press could cause. If the reporters had bad information or a predetermination to make the agency look foolish, the damage could be catastrophic for Catholic Charities. And as much as the diocese was used to dealing with local newspapers, it was not used to dealing with the unforgiving, on-the-spot nature of national television.
Callas reminded everyone that the worst thing to do to a reporter is lie. “Don’t think the news is never going to find out,” he says. “Be honest, be sincere, but be smart.” Make your points and don’t let the reporters get away with bullying.
As it turned out, it was the hospital that had lost the records, not Catholic Charities, and the agency was able to present its case thanks to some sound advice from PGC.
Callas’ new direction in public relations has earned him some ribbing from former colleagues. And he admits he’s still adjusting to life on the other side of the news. But Callas is enjoying his new world. Like the paper, every day is something different and never dull. And, ribbing aside, he believes in his new vocation. It is important for companies and organizations to get their messages across —truthfully — without falling victim to their own missteps.
One of the more lethal missteps: Trying to plead the fifth in the court of public opinion.
“If you think keeping your mouth shut is the best way to go, you’re bound to get in trouble in the long run,” he says. Had Catholic Charities ducked the attention of Good Morning America, for example, the world might not know it was not the agency’s fault. If mishandled, the story in GMA’s hands might have sent the agency to the gallows in the public’s eye.
Callas can still get a minor newsroom fix from his wife. The couple met when she was a Times reporter years ago. She eventually left for the Courier-Post, then the Asbury Park Press, which then got downsized itself. Peter had decided to take the buyout because he didn’t want to work for less pay in the realigned newsroom. But Toni took one of the editing jobs and is now back with the Times.
Born and raised in Creskill, New Jersey, “a tiny little borough of very rich people at the time,” Callas grew up with three siblings. “I drew the lucky card with the muscular dystrophy,” he says. “I had a pretty good childhood, though.”
Not interested in following his father into the coffee business, which the elder Callas ran in Edgewater Park, nor his mother into teaching impaired children, Callas went to college to study newspapering. His journalism career was spent solely with the Times from 1984 until 2009.
As for muscular dystrophy, Callas, now 50, is honest in the way career journalists are. “It’s a devastating disease,” he says. “But I’m thrilled with what I have.”
Callas says having to cope with muscular dystrophy has allowed him a perspective he would never have attained otherwise. “I’m a far more patient man,” he says. “More of an effective leader.” And not being at the Times “allows me to be an advocate for the disabled.”
His advocacy comes in helping the Progressive Center for Independent Living in Hamilton and in more personal ventures. Not long ago a friend became badly injured in an accident in New York. Callas drove to the city frequently to see him and to talk him out of the potential self-pity party. “If I say I believe in you it’s because I think you can do something,” he says. “I don’t think you should hide behind anything.”
Callas’ perspective boils down to just getting to work, without the excuses. “I don’t focus on what I miss,” he says. “I focus on what I have. “I don’t want to find out how bad life can be because it can be a lot worse.”
PGC Communications, 2 Elmwynd Drive, Allentown 08501; 609-259-6261. Peter G. Callas, executive director. Home page: www.pgccommunications.com.