Shady NW 21st Ave. where Roger Guy Learned the Gris of PR
I was on my way to the Cinema 21 to see Metropolis again when I ran across Roger Guy. He was sitting on a picnic table sipping McMenanmins’ brew outside the Blue Moon. Back in the day the Blue Moon was one of Portland’s perfect dives. Now it was a perfect faux dive, but I have to admit it’s pretty nice. At least the pool sticks aren’t leaded. Anyway, I asked Roger how it was going.
“Just memory-laning away,” he said. It was a gray, April day; the sidewalks were wet. “I learned a lot on this street. Stuff that made all the difference later.”
“You mean before you were in PR?”
“Everything is PR,” he said, smiling. “Once you get that, PR is natural.”
Roger was fresh out of college and of course jobless when he found work washing dishes at a restaurant on 21st Street. “I was running out of peanut butter,” he explained. He was doing some freelance writing, but the wordsmith career really wasn’t working out. Before he knew it, he graduated from dishwasher to busser to waiter to shift manager to banquet manager.
“And that is when I learned one of the best lessons of my life,” he explained. “I had this NW hills dragon lady come into the place with two overdressed daughters to plan a rehearsal dinner. It was my first shot at arranging a banquet. We weren’t three seconds into the meeting when dragon lady asks me a question I couldn’t answer. I excused myself to ask the owner if we could fulfill her request. Not a minute after returning to the table, the daughter with colored contacts and ironed hair asks another question I couldn’t answer. I excused myself again to talk to the owner. I got back with the answer and the second daughter, the one with piled up black hair and diamonds who looked like she worked out and ate men for lunch, said, ‘Can we bring our own wine? It would save money.’ What? I thought. You could buy a winery with the change in your pocket. You are chiseling over a bar tab in a noodle house? I managed to smile and excused myself again to talk to the owner.”
Roger lit a smoke and took a long swallow of ale as he remembered the moment. “The owner was in the front, sitting at the bar, looking out over Kearney Street. It was before lunch and the place was closed. I walked up to him, but before I could say anthing, he scowled and said, ‘You’re blowing it, Guy. Get back up there and call some shots, talk to them, don’t ask me.’ But what if I promise them something and you say no? I protested. ‘You get fired. What do you think? If you have to ask me the answers to their questions why am I not talking to them myself? Why am I paying you? Now be the manager.’ Well, I was in a hard place. But I got it. I told the black-haired daughter they would have to buy the wine from us and that we had an excellent wine selection. I then answered all the rest of their questions and negotiated all the prices myself. To my amazement, they didn’t squash me.”
“And what happened with the owner?” I asked.
“He fired me. Hah, No, just kidding. Hey, he wasn’t happy with all my decisions, but he told me I did a good first job. I learned a lot from that guy. The point is, you can’t play mother-may-I your whole life. At some point you gotta fly your own plane. And you can’t be a wimp with your customers. You gotta be nice, you gotta get ‘em what they want, but you have to wear grown up pants while you do it.”
Roger tossed his smoke in the gutter and went back in the Blue Moon to shoot some pool. Nice to be retired, I thought.
I remember the Shoshones on their horses, silent and mysterious, watching me, but seeming not to regard me. They appear now in my memory like ghosts floating with the mist on the prairie.
I squatted by my Norton Commando motorcycle as the late-day heat wafted off the asphalt. The engine and exhaust pipes tinkled as they cooled. The sun would set soon. If I didn’t get the roadster running, I would be sleeping by the roadside. My shop rag of tools was rolled out on the ground. They looked like a Civil War surgeon’s crude amputation kit. I popped off the side casing for the ignition system and peered at the contact points. One of them had fallen off.
I was on my way back from an adventure from Portland, Oregon to Chicago. I was low on funds on the way home and stumbled on some work in a gold mine in Pony, Montana. They were reopening a mine that had been closed since 1942 when the government seized it from its Japanese owners. Thirty years later most of the shafts were riddled with cave-ins. I worked days with a crew mucking out and re-timbering the shafts. The afternoons we policed the mine complex, carrying Winchesters, and chasing off gold panners. One afternoon two guys on horseback were working a stream when we drove up in our old Willy’s Jeep.
“Y’all can’t be here,” our boss said as he stepped off the Jeep. To our surprise both of them turned, pulled six-guns, and fired. One bullet slapped the Jeep near my feet. I tumbled out the back and took cover behind the rear wheels. They fired again. “Shit! You sons ‘o bitches,” hollered the boss. “Fire back!” He didn’t budge and drew his pistol and let off a shot that was way wide. The gold panners popped a few more rounds as they ran to their horses. Unfazed, the boss walked toward them. “Get the hell out ‘o here!” He looked over his shoulder as we cringed behind the Jeep. “Fire, dammit!”
Now, it occurred to me at that minute that I was being paid $35 a day to dig out collapsed mine shafts and shoot at people stealing someone else’s gold. I didn’t have any gold. In fact, I got searched each day after working in the mine. But, hey, they were shooting at me. “Here we go,” I said to my companions.
The three of us poked our heads up, shouldered our Winchesters, and fired. I think we all aimed about twenty feet over their heads. All we wanted them to do was go away. They scrambled onto our horses while we fired at will, and doing an excellent job of missing them.
When we returned to our quarters at the base of the mountain we headed straight for the bourbon and beer. Our base was actually the old bank building from the days when Pony was a bustling mining town. We slept on cots in the lobby, the barred teller windows staring down at us. The rest of Pony was a patchwork of maybe 15 shacks people called home. The nearest bar was about 15 miles away and the nearest store in Three Forks was another 30.
“It was kinda fun riding range with a rifle,” Jim said. “I didn’t figure someone would actually shoot at us.” He shook his head and took a swig from the whiskey bottle.
“Yeah, it was kinda freaky,” Bob said. “I’m just glad nobody got hit.” He slugged his beer, wiped his face, and cracked a smile. “But, whoee, we had a real live old fashioned cowboy shoot out goin’ on!”
We all laughed, but my thoughts did turn to just a few months earlier when I was working night shift at a convenience store on the east side of Portland, the area we called Felony Flats. This guy kept coming in the store and stuffing a bottle of Mad Dog in his pants and trying to sneak out with it. Every time I would stop him and make him put it back. I’d hate to be the guy who actually bought that bottle since it had been in the somebody’s crotch about four times. The fifth time he came in I decided I’d had enough. Before he could even get to the wine shelves I told him to get out. He spun around and said, “I ain’t got nothin’ in my pants, man, see?” And he ripped his pants open. He had no underwear on. At that moment a slithery woman walks in with her boyfriend.
“Hey, perve,” the boyfriend shouts. “You flashin’ my old lady?” The shoplifter tried to yank his pants up but stumbled so it looked like he was waving his manhood at the boyfriend. The guy went nuts and started pummeling the shoplifter. They crashed into shelves, knocking bottles of wine to floor where they smashed and broke. I tried to stop the mayhem, but the boyfriend took the guy outside and continued the beating while his girlfriend cheered him on. I called the police, but by the time they arrived everyone was gone.
Two hours later, about 3 a.m., the shoplifter returned. His face was swollen and purple, and he had a gun. “I should freaking kill you,” he snarled through puffy, bleeding lips. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, man,” I said, my hands up, “Don’t shoot.” It sounded so lame, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say. The guy stood there, weaving a little, and I could see the determination fading from his face. “Screw it,” he said. “Just give me the money.” I stepped away from the register and let him take it all.
The next day my manager said there was more than $20 in the till when the robbery took place, so I would have to make up the difference, about $12, from my pay check. I quit that day and made plans for my motorcycle trip. But now I was here in a caving-in bank building, a few hours after being shot at for no good reason, and pounding down beer and bourbon.
A bat flew into the building and flitted around our heads. Jim grabbed a shotgun and chased it around the bank, blasting away at it as big chunks of ceiling dropped to the floor in a cloud of plaster dust. That was my last night in Pony, Montana.
And now here I was, in the pan handle of Idaho, staring at my Norton, wondering If I was going to get back on the road or sleep in the grass. The sun was setting now. The tall mountains around me were turning to purple shadows and a light mist was forming along the tall grass of the high prairie. Wind slithered through the trees. I got up from the bike and walked in a circle, wondering how I might get the contact points working again and cursing Lucas Electrics, the nemesis of all British bikes and cars.
That was when I saw the four Shoshone Indians on horseback. They were a ways off, riding at a walk in the sunset. They spotted me and turned their horses in my direction. I wondered if they might help. I wondered if they didn’t like white men like me, especially guys in black leather on motorcycles. They rode up to the fence by the road, about thirty feet away, and they just looked at me. Their horses were Paints and Appaloosas, muscled and lathered from riding. They stamped and sidestepped and snorted. The Shoshones were dressed in jeans and flannels with black cowboy hats.
“Hi, guys,” I said, and smiled. They didn’t smile. Again, it sounded so lame, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I decided to get busy with the bike as there didn’t seem to be much chance I could sleep on the prairie. They watched in silence as I worked on the contact points. One was still intact, but the other had come loose and was gone. I remembered I had some aluminium foil I had used to wrap a sandwich for the trip. I dug that out of my pack, tore off a small strip, and wound it around the contacts. I twisted and squeezed the foil tight. Maybe it would serve as a contact and stay on at least until I could get to a town. It was getting dark now. Using a flashlight, I put the cover back on and kick started the engine. It sparked and fired up, sputtering badly. I looked up at the Shoshones. They still said nothing, but one of them smiled and nodded his head. They turned away and rode off.
Praying the foil would stay in place, I put the bike in gear and eased on the clutch. It didn’t stall. I rolled onto the road, shifting into second. The bike backfired and lurched, but it kept going. I wasn’t able to get the Norton over 35 miles per hour, but it kept running. I made my way through the mountains as it became night. I remember watching the beam of the headlight bouncing on the asphalt and flickering in the firs as I kept praying that the contacts would hold.
Finally, about 40 miles later, I came to a small town and there I saw a beautiful sight, a dumpy motel with a flickering neon sign that said, “Vacancy.” Minutes later I was in my tiny room. I had a few beers from the convenience store across the road. There was no TV, but I didn’t care. I lay on the bed, thinking about my trip, and sipped on the ice cold beer. I conked out, still wearing my leathers, and had a strange dream that now I can’t remember. All I have from that wisp of insight is a note I wrote when I woke up: “Don’t forget to write the story about the dead Indians in the church.” To this day, I have no idea what that dream or that story was, but I do remember the Shoshones on their horses, silent and mysterious, watching me, but seeming not to regard me. They appear now in my memory like ghosts floating with the mist on the prairie.
I met Roger Guy at his favourite haunt, Huber’s Cafe in Portland, Oregon.
I met Roger Guy at his favourite haunt, Huber’s Cafe, one of the oldest bars in Portland, Oregon. He liked the dark wood and deep aromas that accompany a place where over 5 million well drinks have been poured.
He was next to me at the bar munching on a turkey sandwich. I was sipping a diet cola and enjoying the attractive woman tending bar. Roger turned to me and said, “You know what burns my toast?” I told him I had no idea. He moved closer, a shot of bourbon suspended from his right thumb and forefinger. “Advertising bullshit.”
“You must have a lot of burnt toast,” I replied. He ignored my comment and sprang into an analysis of a recent McDonald’s ad. In the ad an older woman marvels at the oatmeal a young woman is eating. She is amazed because, get this, it has fruit in it. “In my day oatmeal had two things in it, oat and meal,” she says.
“Really? Seriously?” Roger said. “You want me to believe that the old folks never thought to put fruit in their oatmeal before? What were all my Swedish aunts and uncles eating? Marbles? Next thing you know McDonald’s will want me to believe they are such great innovators that they put yogurt on the oatmeal, maybe even cream, or God forbid, maple syrup! Wow, what will they think of next?”
Roger added that the commercial ends with the elderly woman blogging on her smart phone and her post goes viral. “OMG, Twitter is buzzing about fruit on oatmeal!” he said. “I gotta get to McDonald’s right now….give me a break.”
“It’s just an ad,” I said. “I thought it was kind of cute little story.”
Roger finished his shot of bourbon. “Cute little stories can destroy entire civilizations,” he muttered. “Not just one, but thousands of them, just like thousands of small, explosive rounds from a gatling gun can blow up a train.” He poked a finger at his turkey sandwich. “What will they want me to believe next? That they had this great idea to put cranberry sauce on a turkey sandwich? I know ads are supposed to sell products, but they still have to be about the truth. I guess McDonald’s thinks young people need to think they have new ideas old folks never thought of, and old folks need to think they can use technology too, but can’t there be at least some fragment of truth to the story? They are telling a story. Stories mean something. What are we getting from the stories marketers tell us? What story are we telling history?”
Roger was a little over the top, but I could see his point; at least enough to think I might come back to Huber’s sometime. The bartender was pretty good, too.
It was Spring break, the kids were 8, 6, and 3, and we wanted to take them for a fun family outing. What could be more exciting than driving to St. Louis and going up in the Gateway Arch? We packed sandwiches, snacks, juice, toys, Band Aids (always have Band Aids with kids), piled into the car, and were off for St. Louis just 90 short miles away.
A big day in St. Louis with the kids turned into an ordeal, but a fun one.
“This is going to be the best day ever!” Ted shouted from the back seat.
Soon we were at the Arch and made our way down into the covered area where you buy tickets and board the elevators to the top. Hundreds of excited voices rang off the subterranean walls as we made our way to a very long line for tickets. Just as it was our turn in line, they sold out for the day.
Sold out? Out at 10 a.m.? Are you kidding me?
We emerged from the bowels of the arch into the bright March sun on the waterfront park. What now? We spotted paddle wheel boats along the wharf, bobbing in the brown, Mississippi water. Hey, kids, how about a ride on a real steamboat? Ted was especially excited about the idea. “This is going to be the best day ever!” he said as we walked down to the boats.
Unfortunately, they were a little pricey; enough to make my challenged wallet feel like a busted dam. Sorry, kids. No paddle wheeler today. That’s when we spotted the helicopter for hire as it did a graceful 180 to land on the helipad near the river. “Hey, guys, how about a helicopter ride?” Instantly, the paddle wheel blues were over.
“This is going to be the best day ever!” Ted exclaimed.
Well, not yet. The helicopter was off limits to anyone under 12. Sorry, kids, you are all under 10. Now what? Then it hit us. We were in St. Louis, what could be more St. Louis than Budweiser? “Hey, kids, how would you like to see one of the largest breweries in the world? You’ll see tons of cool machines and the bottling plant. It’s totally cool. Thousands of bottles marching through the factory. And huge horses too. Remember the adds with the giant horses? You’ll see them for real!”
“Wow,” Ted replied. “This is going to be the best day ever.”
We arrived at the Budweiser brewery about 2 p.m. The first thing we saw were the world famous Clydesdales. It was feeding time and their heads were buried in hay bins and their butts were facing out. “Well, so far the all I have seen today is a bunch of horse’s asses,” I thought. But, undaunted, we took the tour of the brewery and bottling plant. Unfortunately, it was Sunday, and they don’t brew or bottle beer on Sundays. The tour guide led us up six flights of steps to a glassed-in platform where we could see all of the bottling plant. “Just imagine,” he said, “That there are thousands of beer bottles traveling along those conveyers. Here they fill with beer. There they get capped. And there the machines pick them up and put them in cases.”
Yeah, imagine that.
Next part of the tour was the hospitality room where grownups got a Dixie cup of beer and the kids got nothing. After 5 minutes of hospitality we were herded out of the brewery and onto the street where it was getting dusky. Nearly 5 p.m. I looked at the kids standing there on the old, cracked sidewalk, cars roaring by on the I-55 viaduct. The fumes hit your lungs like a hair spray.
One more idea. “Hey, kids, how would you like to see a ginormous fountain and ride in a cool glass elevator at a huge shopping mall?”
Yeah! The kids replied. And Ted said it again, “This will be the best day ever.”
We arrived at the mall at 6 p.m., which is closing time on Sundays. The lights went out, the fountain stopped, and the elevator shut down just as we entered the mall. We were all crushed. The kids sat by the still fountain and sobbed. At that moment I regretted thinking the paddle wheeler was too expensive. What the heck, it’s only money, right?
Then it hit us, one more idea, the Toy Castle in O’Fallon, Illinois across the river. “He kids, how would you like to see the biggest toy store ever? And you can get a really cool toy.” They sniffled, looked at us doubtfully. Teddy said, “Will they be open?”
Good question. It’s Sunday and it’s 6:15 p.m. Well, only one thing to do. We piled in the van and I drove about 85 mph all the way across the river to the shopping center where we saw, and the lights were still on, the Toy Castle. The building really looked like a castle, and it was much bigger that Toys-R-Us.
“Awesome!” Teddy said as we walked through the doors. “This will be the best day ever.”
Well, at least it was about the most memorable day ever. But Ted never stopped thinking positive, and we never stopped trying. So, I guess Ted was right. It really was the best day ever.
Talking points, or key messages as I prefer them, are supposed to be just that, points. But well meaning PR people often write something more like paragraphs, me included.
For example, this “talking point” for private security companies:
“Private security companies that patrol neighborhoods have been found to reduce crime by as much as 80 percent, especially in neighborhoods where more than four residents subscribe to the same security company and install motion sensitive security lights. If you put private security controls, lights, and community involvement together, you get great results.”
That might make a good argument, but if you have 15 “talking points” like that and you go into an interview, you probably won’t remember much of it for the interview.
Talking points should be go-to phrases that you can return to several time in an interview. For example, “Private security companies reduce neighborhood crime by 80 percent.”
If you have three or four little phrases like that in an interview, they will serve you well.
But what about all of your wonderful, well-reasoned arguments? You need those as well, but not in your talking points. Here is how you use them.
Write a position paper of not more than 500 words. In this paper you bring forth every argument and your supporting data or logic. If you can, work on this paper over a period of time. Allow yourself to set it down for a few days and review. It will get shorter and sharper with every review and revision. Now share it with several people and get input and revise again.
Now you have your argument and it is time for the talking points. Create four or five punchy phrases based on your position paper that stir logic and emotion. They do not have to be complete sentences and each point should not exceed one line in point 12 (or use the billboard rule: not more than 11 words). In addition, choose one or two data points, that’s it, and include in your talking points. Too few data points, you think? Take a look at effective advertising or political campaigns, they hammer away on just a few key facts. That way your message is not muddled.
For example, there are hundreds of statistics that could be used to point out that America has a problem with its justice system, but the one you usually hear is, “There are more people in prison in America than in any other country in the world.” Or the Occupy movement and it’s number: 99 percent. Very effective, don’t muddy the argument with more statistics.
So remember, it’s a point, not a paragraph.
Someone asked me what I consider to be the most important part of public relations. That is easy: the story. It’s all about the story. After all, if you don’t tell your story, someone else will tell it for you.
So it is important to tell your (or your client’s) story through articles, media, testimonials, etc., but there is far more to it. The story is not static, it is always being told. Every time your company has an interaction with a customer, that is a piece of the story, and it is happening in real time all the time. When you are telling your story, you have to think about the past, the present, and the future. You have to tell your story by pushing out information through every available channel while at the same time working on customer service so that the story you tell and the story your customers experience are the same.
Life is no different. Your life is your story. It is a living, evolving narrative. Your past influences your present, and the choices you make in the present are your future. So, what is the story you are telling with your life? What is your narrative? Are you telling your story or is someone else doing that for you?
Driving while on a cell phone is clearly a distraction that can lead to horrendous disasters. Some people are so distracted texting on a cell phone that they lose track of where they are walking. One woman fell down a manhole in New York city. But there is another kind of hole we can fall down with a cell phone or, even worse, a smart phone.
Sometimes, when we are connected to our virtual world we are actually in a disconnect. The marketing photo in this post shows a well-dressed business woman enjoying herself at the beach while loving doing her work. She is connected to her office, her world, her network. She has power and flexibility.
At least that is the image. She is actually tethered to a reality far away that has more influence on her than the environment she is actually in. Ten years ago she would have been at the beach to get away from the office so she could re-create, step back from the buzz and do some real thinking. If all you do is work, there is no time to look ahead.
Instead of being distracted from your environment, be in it. Be in every place you are, with all your attention. Live where you are and get it all, whether at work or at play. That way you won’t miss the beach behind the woman in the photo.
A marketing rule spouted by some pundits is to build a fence around your customers; keep them in the corral. I hate that metaphor. It makes your customers sound like a bunch of mooing cows to hog tie and brand. That’s the way the cable TV and wireless phone companies do business. Their offers are designed to get you into their system, and then you sign a contract to get the deal, and then they jack the price on you two years later, but not so much if you sign up again. It’s like doing business with gangsters.
A good business does not hog tie it’s customers, it rewards them for being good clients. Rather than getting them into a corral, you get them into your camp, and you keep them their by making the experience so good they wouldn’t think of camping anywhere else (Kumbaya).
If you stay with a company for two years, it should lower your rate, and offer to lower it even more if you sign a contract. The only way this will happen is if consumers refuse to buy into the current business model.
Me, I’d rather pay more than be in the corral.
“Give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above. Don’t fence me in….”
There are many ways to define leadership. But it may really be a long line of cows.
We were driving to Portland, Oregon a few weeks ago and ran across a huge dairy just south of Salem. Crossing a field at least half a mile long was a line of cows, all single file. At the head of the line a cow was chugging along, breathing hard, with a worried look on his face that seemed to say, “Where the heck am I going?”
And all the cows followed him.
Is Leadership just a long line of cows?
And it struck me, he is the leader, and he does not know where he is going. I don’t think he was even sure he was the leader. It’s more like he just started walking and others started following until all of them fell into a long, straight line to nowhere in particular. Maybe he started out walking toward food, maybe he was looking for a sunnier spot in the field, maybe he just wanted to see the other end of the pasture. Maybe he wasn’t thinking about anything at all.
But there he was, with the herd blindly following. At some point I imagined him looking over his shoulder and seeing the great responsibility behind him. So he broke into a trot to get away. They all picked up their pace. Soon they were all puffing along in a fast trot, mooing and bleating for him to keep going.
But the end of the pasture was looming. What would they do when he got to the fence? Crash over him into a pile?
Maybe that’s what leadership is like. Someone gets a notion in his head and starts off, without a plan. But others like where he is going and start to follow. Soon everyone is on the march, following the leader, who has no particular goal in mind, and when they get where they are going they will say, “You led us to nowhere! We trusted you and you have betrayed us!”
Is that leadership? Not really. But people do start trends that become movements that become tsunamis just because they got a notion in their heads and marched off into the unknown. Leadership is about vision, about having an idea and getting everyone on board to sale with you.
The big question is, what creates more change in the world? Positive change?
Good quotes in a press release are hard to come by. Why? Because the quote often winds up being w2hat the person being quoted wants, not what the reader wants.
What does the reader want? A strong comment that takes a position and refers to things they can imagine.
For example, here is a quote written for the health department person explainning why people should get a flu vaccine.
“It is important for everyone in the community to be vaccinated for seasonal influenza. The Centers for Disease Control research shows that the more people who are vaccinated, the less likelihood there is of an epidemic. The incidence of adverse reactions from flu shots are extremely low and the CDC assures us they are safe. That is why we advise everyone to get a vaccination in order to protect our most vulnerable populations, the elderly and children.”
That is nice for the health department person as he or she will see that as a professional, intelligent, accurate quote. But the public will not latch onto that.
This is better.
“When you get a flu shot you don’t just protect yourself, you protect everyone. It’s called herd immunity. Flu shots area safe. Don’t believe the myths that you can get the flu or any other disease from a flu shot. There are rare times when someone does have a bad reaction, but you are more likely to die from the flu than from a reaction to a flu shot. The more people are vaccinated, the less likely we are to be burying people all winter long.”
Well, that might be a bit over the top, but you get the idea.
How to get a good quote? Talk to your person you are quoting with a recording device. Catch some of the more casual, usually more memorable quotes. Then revise them so they aren’t too casual, but keep the vitality of the quote! And don’t let that person change it. Be adamant about the need for a good sound byte for the public.
“Flu shots are safe, they save lives, and they keep you healthy all winter. Get a shot.”