In some of my earlier articles that I’ve posted, I’ve mentioned a few of the pitfalls and uncontrollable, “acts of God” that can befall pr professionals, causing events or projects to either “crash and burn,” (see earlier articles on “New Year’s Eve…” and “Bette Davis”), or be “rescued” or resuscitated through last-minute, on-the-fly solutions (see “Toast N’ Eggs) that literally (most often) saved the day. I’ve had quite a few mishaps in my day and shall share one in this article. It’s about a situation that occurred that required immediate, and decisive action on my part, in order to salvage an opportunity that otherwise may have been lost.
Early on in my career, working in pr was still much like living in an old black and white movie; like life was depicted on the show “Mad Men.” I found myself in a situation in which I was thrust in front of a network news camera and forced (by the situation and myself) into being a spokesperson, but I’ll get to that in a minute or so.
The agency I worked at, represented the trade association for the candy and chocolate manufacturers in the US., a piece of business that I worked on. The association had recently hired a new “number 2″ in their communications department; a young, affable, somewhat boisterous guy who had not yet begun drinking the” Kool-Aid,” and as such, was still open to having fun and keeping things loose. I’ll call him Bob, for anonymity purposes. Bob was of Irish descent and so was I, and we had a lot of other things in common that conspired/inspired to bring us closer together and cause us to develop a good friendship that went beyond the usual “client-agency rep” relationship.
We’d talk for long periods of time on the phone, trading jokes and gossip and generally just having a good time. I learned he was recently married, was a former jock and liked to let his hair down, not unlike myself. After about nine months or so, of talking and laughing over the phone, we were scheduled to attend the annual convention of the association he worked for and we were both looking forward to finally meeting in person so we could really cement the bond we had formed.
The convention was held in Los Angeles at the same time the Grammy awards show was happening. I, having conducted several radio promotions for other clients with a top radio station in New York, managed to get us tickets to the Grammy’s. This now required me getting a tux and renting a limo so we could go in style, while also further cementing the bond between us. (Anything for the good of the agency.) The Grammy’s were great, we all had a good time, then more of a good time until it became very, very late and it was time to call it a night.
The following morning, we were all in the “war room” (the press room) in the convention center, when a producer and cameraman from CNN showed up and wanted to do an interview with someone from the trade association. I told my client, Bob, who was very reluctant to do it. I said, “Bob, you’ve got to do it, it’s CNN!” My client was quite hung-over and didn’t want to do the interview and begged me to do it instead. I jumped at the idea of taking a bullet for my client… for the good of the association and the good of the agency I worked for. And of course, I would do this because I knew that we had, for years, been trying to get the media to deliver a scripted message that we had been attempting to get across for years. The message: “Candy and chocolate can be a part of a healthy diet that’s based on variety and moderation.”
I smoothed my tie and shirt, tugged down on the sides and back of my suit jacket (just like they teach you in media training) and delivered my sound bite. It didn’t matter what question I was asked (and I think there were a few), I would consistently reply, “What we’re saying here today is that candy and chocolate can be part of a healthy diet that’s based on variety and moderation.”
I need to back track just a bit here to say that my client’s boss had recently retired, and a new director of communications of the association had just taken over. The new director had issued a(n) RFP and was looking to interview other pr firms to represent the association. All the more reason for me to finally deliver that sacred message that we had, for years, being trying to deliver. Which, as I already mentioned, I had already done.
The convention ended and I was given the green light to take a few comp days off, so a colleague of mine and I drove out to Palm Springs for some R&R. While I was baking poolside in Palm Springs, I was contacted by my boss and told I needed to get back to New York ASAP to help present our pitch to the association’s new “number 1” the following day. I was not supposed to be on that pitch, I mean, that’s why I was in Palm Springs relaxing, and not in NY.
But, that changed because of CNN, who at the time, was the first and only 24 hour cable news network. CNN, the first and only 24 hour news network had run a story about the candy convention and used my sound bite after introducing me as a spokesperson for the association. The only problem was, the anchor, Lou Waters (google him), while sitting behind the news desk, looked directly into the camera after I delivered my sound bite (“Candy and chocolate can play a role in a healthy diet that’s based on variety and moderation”) and said with a smirk, “Yeah, riiiiiight!” It was the sound bite heard ’round the world. I literally got calls from people in the U.K, Belgium and I don’t remember where else. And back then CNN repeated their half-hour newscast, well, every half-hour for 24 hours.
So, I raced to LAX, jumped on a “red-eye” flight and arrived in New York at around 6:30 am. Went home, showered, changed, and met my boss at the airport and got on a shuttle flight to D.C. An interesting thing happened on the flight that, while it has no real bearing on the story, I feel like telling anyway. Directly across the aisle from my boss and I, were two young women who were going over their printed “deck” (we didn’t have “Power Point” or laptops back then) while discussing and rehearsing their “pitch” that they were going to give to the association we represented! When the flight landed and they reached up to grab their stuff from the overhead bin, I could not help myself and asked, “So are you guys from Porter or Fleishman and what time are you slotted to pitch?” All the color ran from their faces and they looked like they might become sick at any moment. My boss was mortified and told me I shouldn’t have said anything, to which I replied, “Why? Now they’re going to scramble and have to re-do their pitch because they know, that we know, what they’re planning on presenting.”
We made our pitch, proudly playing a tape of the CNN Newscast in which I had delivered the sound bite heard ’round the world, and we promptly lost the business. I found out later that the new “number 1” at the association had a previous, long-term relationship with another agency, so I didn’t blame the loss on the interview I gave or the sound bite I delivered. Either way, it was fun, memorable and a lot of people got a lot of good laughs out of it, especially Lou Waters, CNN’s most prominent and respected, first cable news network anchor, at the first and only all-news cable network of its time.