Another Unpredictable, Unavoidable PR Disaster….

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Yesterday I posted an article I wrote about an unavoidable occurrence (the death of Bette Davis) and how it negatively impacted a major PR publicity event.  Today, I continue the theme with an additional instance in which a PR effort tanked due to an unpredictable event that transpired causing a normally effective tactic to crash and burn with no on-the-fly solutions that could reverse the unfortunate turn of events that occurred.

In the late 1980s I worked at a large, Global PR agency with some very creative and talented people who were responsible for representing an internationally-recognized, category-leading brand of consumer batteries (that did not have a pink bunny as a mascot).  Faced with the challenge of increasing brand awareness, and boosting sales during the 4th quarter, a key time of year for battery purchases, the team came up with the idea to create an annual “Kid’s Toy Test Survey.”  This made perfect sense since many batteries are bought in the the fourth quarter to provide power for the toys that kids receive for the holiday’s.

The survey was implemented by soliciting toy manufacturers during the summer, encouraging them to provide us with toys that would be new to the market and on store shelves just in time for the upcoming holiday season.  Next, YMCA after-school programs were contacted in about ten cities and toys were sent to them along with a “play” book that the after-school personnel would use to keep a log of what toys children were most interested in playing with based on the toy’s “play-ability” and several other criterion that would help us to develop the “Top Ten Toys List.”

The program was wildly successful and within a few short years grew to include more than 30 after-school YMCA programs through the nation participating.  The client budget also grew exponentially which, of course, made everyone at the agency very happy.

In  early 1989, with Ronald Reagan in office and the whole world talking about the “Evil Empire” (Russia) and the current climate of “Glastnos” (Mikhail Gorbachev’s willingness to create and promote “more openness and increased government transparency”) and “Perestroika” ( his effort to promote reform within the Communist Party), the idea came about to open talks with whomever the right person was to talk to about pulling back the Iron Curtain to include Russian children in the toy test survey.  The idea being, “Would Soviet kids like the same toys as their American counterparts? And really, does it matter or not if they do since it will be a major coup with the media regardless of the outcome?”

So contact was made with the Soviet Children’s Museum, negotiations took place and toys and play-book manuals were sent to Russia (after they had been thoroughly vetted by members of the KGB, I’m guessing).

Two agency vice presidents flew over to Russia with a video crew and gathered footage of the little Russian kids (who were dressed in outfits straight out of a 1950’s American clothing catalog, complete with hair bows and everything and saying things like “Spasibo”).  The footage would be used to accompany footage that we shot at the YMCA centers to let reporters and indeed the rest of our country, “compare and contrast” the differences between the cultures.

It (the kids and the whole Russian Vs. American kids thing) was all very cute but we needed more “cuteness” so someone came up with the idea of calling the exchange of the program between American and Russian kids  “Peres-Toy-Ka”  (a play on the work perestroika that I described earlier).  VERY CUTE and very enticing to the media!  A press conference to announce the best toys, as rated by the kids, was planned, a meeting room at the Helmsley Plaza Hotel-NYC, was secured, pitch calls were made, and every member of the media that we cared about, planned on attending.

We arrived at the Helmsley, set up the standard card table outside of the room, arranged the press kits, the pre-printed press badges, goodie bags and media sign-in sheets and waited patiently for the arrival of journalists that promised to attend.

As the time of the start of the press briefing neared, we started to panic as there were no members of the press there yet (they usually come early to eat whatever food you put out for them… doughnuts and such).  We soon found out why no one was there.  The Berlin Wall had come down just hours before our briefing, with hordes of East and West Germans still attacking the wall with hammers, pick axes and anything else they could get their hands on that would facilitate smashing the concrete barrier into oblivion.

After the initial shock wore off, an eerie quiet settled over the room as we slowly began making calls to NY-based media to see if anyone would still come, even maybe an intern (pleazzzzze!) — anyone to help fill the many seats facing the riser with a podium on top and signage hanging from everywhere and from every angle (gotta make it impossible for cameras to snap a photo or shoot footage without them getting the signage in.)  The calls to the media were not going well.  Not at all.  Really bad.

I was assigned the task of calling the national morning shows and I will never forget calling my contact at CBS This Morning (her name was Carol and probably still is, unless she’s no longer with us) who told me “I was out of my  mind and to please ‘lose’ her number and never call again.”

This all occurred one and one-half years after Ronald Reagan, in a now famous line he delivered at a speech in West Berlin, said,  “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that Wall!”

As I said yesterday, “Man plans and God laughs.”  Or maybe it;’s “PR Pros plan and God laughs.”