Thanksgiving always reminds me of my second PR agency job. My employer’s office was on Broadway, and the agency had a very cool tradition of hosting a breakfast for clients and staff on Thanksgiving morning. Our fifth floor offices afforded an outstanding view of the Macy’s parade, whose giant balloons were right at eye level. It was the only time I ever saw the parade live and warm.
Apart from that cozy memory, the place was a sweatshop. My account was a large industrial concern that made, among other things, enormous air compressors to power factory equipment. My job was to write two stories a week about these machines, and then place them in the few obscure trade publications whose readers would give a hoot.
My team wrote more than 100 of these case histories in my 18 months of employment, yet to this day I have never actually laid eyes on one of these behemoths. The agency was paid a flat rate per story – the fee covered research, writing and placement. It wasn’t enough money to cover travel, so we did all the research and interviews by phone.
Me: So, I hear you have a new KCB-5000. How’s that working out for you?
Plant Manager: Well, we like it fine. It does a real nice job for us.
I had to keep this guy talking until I could tease out four pages of copy – 1,000 words! – about a machine that blew air into a hose. And believe me, getting a quotable quote to spice up the story was no easy matter, either.
But one day, the client breathlessly announced they’d just sold a “next generation” air compressor. This was huge! We needed to get this in Compressed Air magazine (I did not make that up) as soon as possible.
Bear with me: a few words about how air compressors – specifically rotary-screw air compressors – work. Rotary-screw air compressors suck air into a chamber that typically has two rotors that look like big screws with threads. (The picture at the top of this page is of a pair of rotors.) These rotors pull the air into the threads and squish it – hence the name “air compressor” – until the air comes whizzing out the other end like a bullet from a gun. But as the rotors do their work, they get really hot – so hot that they would burn up if they were not fed a constant stream of lubricant.
My client had developed a compressor with a whole new rotor design that compressed the air just as well as the old design but was so precisely engineered it did not need lubrication.
I got the plant manager on the phone. His company, based in Indianapolis, made snack foods. The name of the company was Snack Foods, Inc. (Didn’t make that up either).
Me: So, I hear you got yourself a new CLF-8000. How’s that working out for you?
Plant Manager: We like it just fine. It gives us clean, lubricant-free compressed air and we’re gonna save a ton on air filters.
Me: How’s that?
Manager: Well you don’t need filters if the air comes out without lubricant.
Me: Without lubricant, you say. Is that important?
Manager: Is that important? Let me tell you, Sonny, a drop of lubricant on your doodle will ruin your whole day!
That quote was the pinnacle of my case history career. Because of it, I was able to place a story about the compressor in Popular Mechanics, a high-circulation consumer magazine. It was a feat never before achieved by my client and which (I am willing to bet) never happened again. I basked in the glory. The agency gave me a $100 bonus that Christmas, which was a crappy bonus even back then, and soon I moved on.
But looking back, the discipline, borne of sheer desperation, to keep gnawing on a story until the job was done was probably the best training I ever had. That job forced me to write every day, and that is the only way you’ll ever get any good at it.
So grudging thanks to the sweatshop, and a Happy Thanksgiving to you all.
Categories: Random PR Thoughts
The best, Chris! Just the best. If I ever eat another cheese doodle, I’ll first examine it very, very carefully. And those occasional days when I don’t write anything? History!
You have a lot of good stories. I always enjoy reading these, despite knowing next to nothing about PR.
Great story, well told. Still laughing at that quote. You couldn’t make that up if you tried. And great point about writing every day — it’s the best writing school around. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours too.
Thanks, Ray. You too!