Saturday, November 8, 2014

Before Dancing with the Stars, There Was The 80s, Aerobics and PR 101 -- the Crystal Light National Aerobic Championship

To get a job in the 80s in PR, you had to have a portfolio of your work when you interviewed.  I still have it of course, even though it is warped and a bit yellowed.

There is a really entertaining video circulating on Facebook, showing 80s aerobics athletes jumping all over the stage.  The video is from the Crystal Light National Aerobic Championship produced by Howard Schwartz.  Howard is\was such an astute businessman that I have a feeling he is behind the Youtube sensation and is making money off that show 25 years later.  Have a look and you will see what all the fuss is about.  

We Are the Champions Video

This video, offers a wave of nostaglia for people for the 80s - the hair, the dancing and the work out gear.  I, also laughed when I saw it, but not from a distance like most people.  I worked on that program for DAY Public Relations for two years when I started out.  I traveled to every major, and some not so major, mall in America (before there was a Mall of America).  Prior to each show, I would sit in my hotel room early on weekend mornings calling all the media outlets in town.  I told them about the visuals, the energy, and the athletes.  I pitched TV assignment desks, wire services and newspapers to cover it. The program, sponsored by Crystal Light, a new brand at the time, was like a full scale traveling Broadway show. 

Representing the sponsor, we set up sampling stations in the mall, and worked with the press.  Hundreds of people, and the occasional celebrity (James Caan stopped by in Miami),would come by to try Crystal Light, and enjoy the music and dancing. I was a young PR person then, cutting my teeth in the industry, and loving every minute of it.  

Maxwell House Coffee and the 1988 Spirit Challenge for the US Olympic Team
I didn't make much money starting out in PR.  But it was never about the money for me.  PR people are woefully underpaid, even now.  It was about the life, the work, the friendships, and the adrenaline. I was part of the General Foods account team and also worked on Ronzoni Pasta's sponsorship of the New York City Marathon, Maxwell House Coffee's Sponsorship of the 1988 Olympic Team, Kool-Aid's Summerfun for Kids, and much more.  It was guerilla marketing before there was any such term.

In our apartment between 1st and York, we had some big hair in those days.

My starting salary in 1987 was $18,000.  One paycheck for two weeks of work didn't even cover my NYC rent for one month.  Our apartment was a glamorous 4th floor walk up on East 72nd Street, that I shared with my best friend Kathy Van Zeeland. Kathy worked in the handbag buying program for Saks, managing the handbag department on the main floor. I don't know what her salary was, but not much better, I can tell you. Handbags, were her calling too, as history has proven.  When you entered our railroad style apartment you practically fell into the bathroom.  And the 'one' bedroom, if you can call it that, well, we had to sleep in bunk beds because the room was so small.  Our kitchen consisted of a mini fridge and a two burner stove I don't think we ever used. We were rich in laughs though.  It was a silly time.  Heady stuff for two kids from a small town in California, we didn't have the big league connections of the Manhattan kids.  We built our careers from scratch.

That first summer working after college, I immediately went on the road because I had worked for my firm for two summers as an intern.  Internships weren't common then, so I had a big jump on other kids my age who spent a lot of time looking for work while I was on the road. I worked on several multi-city programs, usually traveling from Wednesday to Sunday, return to NY, file my reports and then back out there with the entire team. It was hectic, but it was a blast. Hanging out with the road crew, the comedian who opened the show, the producers, the brand managers from General Foods, another account person from my PR company DAY Public Relations (which later merged with Ogilvy PR) and the spokespeople. From the very earnest aerobic instructors, Olympic athletes to television stars, what a wild ride it was.  

The Champions with Malcolm Forbes at the National Fitness Foundation Awards in NYC.  Malcolm won a lifetime award for fitness and was a big advocate of exercising.  

It was PR 101.  We wrote endless press releases, media alerts, and tried to create the perfect pitch letter.  We worked tediously on our media lists, checked spelling and phone numbers, booked media tours, trained spokespeople, did research at the library (the library was our Google!) and after that, we double checked our work again.  Our writing bible was the AP Style book, something a PR coordinator wouldn't know today if it hit them in the head.

Me and Olympic long jumper Bob Beamon hit the road
 in Milwaukee,
Portland and Miami

There were long, long hours but it didn't seem like it. It seemed fun.  There was no email, cell phones or even faxing, in the first years I worked. Everything was about discipline and diligence. There was no sending an email late at night from your car or on the way to dinner.  You did all of you work in the office or in a hotel room.  You had to have those media lists checked and double checked -- there was no Googling a contact if you didn't type it in properly (on a typewriter). When our team finally got one computer, it was for the assistant to use only.  Our account must have been ten people at the time, so when you look back it is funny to think how novel it was just to have one fax for a big office and one computer for a large account team.

Even back then, I knew I had found my calling.  I loved to write, travel, working with journalists, work on the energy of a special event.  PR had a little bit of everything and it fit my personality perfectly.  Honestly, I couldn't believe I got paid to do it.

I will forever value those first years when I was fortunate enough to have such a stimulating environment.  I didn't fully understand it then, but I was surrounded by optimists at my PR firm.  Whenever I mentor, young women especially, I think back to how pivotal that first job was in my confidence, learning the business, and how vital optimism is to being a successful PR person.

Typed thank you note from Sports editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, 1987.  

I was on a media tour with Olympic athletes to promote our Spirit Challenge 
with Maxwell House to raise money for the 1998 Olympic Team.  
This letter followed an interview with Mike Curran, Hall of Fame goalie, 
and member of the 1972 Silver Medal US Team USA.  I went to see 
my first professional hockey game with him in Philadelphia, hockey 
was more than a little rough in those years.

After working at DAY, I went to work at firm called Ruder Finn in the lifestyle division.  One of the accounts I worked on was Justin Cowboy Boots.  I can vividly remember a young designer named Marc Jacobs, who was the toast of the fashion world, coming into our office to discuss his spring line and collaborate on custom cowboy boots to go with prairie skirts. Marc was probably the same age, or maybe younger, than my colleague, and friend Diana Strauss. Diana and I were given tickets to the show, a spectacle I had never seen before. It was the era of the supermodel and all the 'girls' were in the show. Naomi, Cindy, Christy and Helena looking fabulous.  I was spellbound.  I didn't even know there was a fashion 'world' in those days, and here we were right in the middle of it. PR is a never ending world of discovery. and that FOMO, is what drives us all, in a good way.

Check out this interview of the show with the fresh faced Marc below.

CNN Style with Elsa Klensch Interview with Marc Jacobs Video

The other night I had a reunion for my PR company and when I drove home, I was happy and sad, at the same time.  Sad, because unlike the first half of my career, the second half, was not so easy to always play at the top of my PR game.  I did conference calls from hospital corridors, I functioned on very little sleep, I smiled politely while people worried about very superficial things, even when I was dying inside. I worked through it though, because at work I was still Lisa Lori. I got up in the morning and put one foot in front of the other. I wasn't trying to be a hero, I needed my work to survive.

I was happy, on that drive home, because I have been lucky enough to have found a career that I loved so much. I don't know what would have happened to me without it.  There is little doubt, I had to forfeit some career ambitions to help my family through the rough spots of our medical challenges, but it was a small price to pay for my sanity.  I sincerely believe you cannot get through a struggle without having something to take your mind off your troubles, a place to focus your energy on.  

The media love to give PR people a bad rap, and Hollywood doesn't help matters much by perpetuating a stereotype that we are all vapid.  But outside of the 10 percent of the stereotype, which exist within any industry, there are a world of talented, dedicated, and yes, amazing professionals.  So many people ask me if I miss having my PR agency after retiring it last year, and while I don't miss the pressure of my payroll, I do miss the day to day camaraderie and joy, of my colleagues.  

PR people, are by nature optimists, they have to be a cheerleader even when they don't feel like cheering and, often, they do it in the face of constant rejection. I am proud to have been a PR professional for most of my life. Journalists filet you on a regular basis, call us flacks, some ask sarcastically, if you've ever read their column when you pitch them.  Deep breathe.  Some take offense if you don't call them back within 20 seconds of their call, but those same ones, rarely say thank you for your assistance.  On Facebook, I read the posts of journalists I am friends with recount their PR war stories.  These journalists know of course, that PR people have little recourse, as we can't slag off journalists without risking alienating them.

At the reunion, a close friend of mine who is a reporter and veteran journalist for NY1, Shelley Goldberg asked me about the book I'd like to write.  'Why do you think you have had such a positive attitude about your enormous challenges, because that is your book, that is something people want to hear,'. Maybe I didn't realize why until today, maybe it is just the PR person in me. Maybe some people are born critics and some are born optimists.  Every morning you wake up, you decide who you want to be.  You decide to be polite or rude, helpful or difficult, mean or kind.  I came of age in a service industry, no matter what you think about it, we are in the service of others. 

And I'm good with that, so far so good.  Have a great weekend.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your feedback!