PR Foils, Foibles and Disasters

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I often think about the many unfortunate, unpredictable and sometimes outlandish things that happened during my early years of my public relations career.  The simple fact is, that the old saying “Man plans, God laughs” certainly applies to public relations professionals.  All the time.  So purely for your entertainment and perhaps to demonstrate my empathy to situations you may also have experienced that did not go exactly as planned, I offer the following:

One of my first experiences with an unforeseen and unavoidable event that destroyed the finale of a very successful year-long PR campaign was the death of the film icon Bette Davis.  The consumer products group of the PR agency I was working at had come up with a brilliant idea for our client, a multi-national consumer products conglomerate that made and sold a large portfolio of bar soaps.  The idea was to hold a nationwide “Singing in the Shower Contest” in which entrants would need to incorporate the name of one of the clients’ bar soap brands into a well-known, recognizable, song, and sing it while standing in a move-able bathtub complete with a shower head that traveled throughout the country, appearing in shopping malls where contestants would perform their “acts.”

It was wildly successful, generating tons of coverage in the local markets in which the contests were held.  There was coverage that announced the upcoming contest, coverage the day of the contest and coverage announcing the local winner who would qualify for the semi-finals, with the final competition taking place at Universal Studios in Hollywood, California.

The PR team pulled out all the stops in creating a highly-visual and festive stage on which contestants would perform, and we feverishly pitched national entertainment media who responded positively, verbally committing to attend and cover the final event.  We’re talking “Entertainment Tonight” “Inside Edition” and “Hard Copy” as well other national, and local, print and television outlets.

Our event was to be held on October 7, 1989.  Bette Davis passed away late in the evening on October 6th.  The “war room” we had set up at the Sheraton Universal was exploding!  We all scrambled to confirm that reporters and television producers and field reporters would still be coming to the grand finale of the “National Singing in the Shower Contest.”  They said “no, they would not be coming.”  In fact, many hung up on us immediately upon hearing our pitch.  I remember calling a producer at Entertainment Tonight (E.T.), using one of the two “mobile” phones that our agency let us use once we “signed” for it.  The phone.was called by many back then a “brick” due to it’s size and weight.  It was ugly and cumbersome with a stubby, rubber clad antenna, back-lit rubber dial push buttons and only had about thirty minutes of talk time.

At any rate, I called this producer at E.T. to try to convince her that they should still cover such an important, fun, interesting and highly-visual event that was happening right in their own backyard!  She said something along the lines of, “Are you [deleted] kidding me?  Ms. Davis just died last night and everyone has dropped everything else they are working on to cover it!”

Having already endured so much rejection by reporters already in my short career, I had learned to never take “no” for an answer and that there is always a way you could “spin” a story to make it impossible to ignore.  So, of course, I replied to the producer and asked her if I could change her mind if I got a large, foam core board with Ms. Davis’ face printed on it and we could have someone say a few, kind words about her passing and hold a moment of silence at the event.  I don’t remember exactly what she said back to me but it was something along the lines of me being “despicable” or “an opportunistic pig” or both.  And no, they did not attend, nor did they cover, our event.

If you have any similar “war” stories you’d like to share with me, please do so!