On Earth Day: Life, Death and Perspective

Events, Opinions Posted Apr 22, 2014 by chenpr

On Earth Day nineteen years ago I learned a valuable lesson in public relations.

Back then I was young and full of energy and ideals. Public relations was a new course for my career and I was determined to make a difference for my clients by tapping into the power of the press on their behalf.

In those days I’d done a stint in the U.S. Navy and then went on to college where I earned a degree in political science as a non-traditional student. I worked evenings and nights for an alarm systems company in Portland, Maine and during the daylight hours I toiled as a freelance writer doing whatever I could to cobble together a living. I wrote copy, I sold articles to magazines, I did some editing—for me it was all about building a portfolio that I could use as a bridge to bigger things.

A mentor suggested I look into public relations because even then he recognized that traditional publishing and journalism was not what it once had been and was not likely to improve as an occupational prospect. An honorable profession? Sure, but not a lucrative one for a husband and new father.

When an opportunity arose for me to plan and execute a media campaign for a local business, I jumped at it. I had no real experience in public relations at that point, but I gambled I could figure it out as I went along using my freelancer’s skill and instinct.

The angle was Earth Day and the hook was a paper recycling program that allowed customers to earn a certain amount of credit for every pound of paper they brought in. There was an antique freight scale and an enthusiastic owner as visual elements, so I set out telling Portland’s print and broadcast media all about it.

For my first attempt, that PR campaign went well. I convinced a lot of the local media, including the business editor of city’s major daily newspaper and three of the four television network affiliates, to cover the story.

When I went to bed on Sunday, April 18 I was satisfied with a job well done. In the morning I’d wake up and head down to the establishment and observe as the two remaining television stations (one had done a small piece for the Sunday evening broadcast) recorded their segments and then I’d bask in the accolades.

But on the morning of April 19, 1995 things took a tragic turn as news broke of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

The moment Timothy McVeigh detonated his deadly device in front of that structure killing 168 people—including young children that had just been dropped off at the facility’s daycare center— the importance of a recycling campaign was cast in stark contrast with grim reality. There was real news to cover and my campaign wasn’t it.

Since that day I’ve kept in mind that, no matter how important a product announcement or company milestone may seem at the time, it must compete for attention with things that affect people’s lives in real and often terrible ways.

I’m older now, and while I’m still filled with energy and ideals, I’ve also got two decades of perspective that keeps me grounded. Over the last twenty years I’ve been involved in a lot of interesting stories and worked with companies on the cutting edge of technology. Their innovations have changed markets, built or become vital parts of big companies, and have meant a great deal to those involved. It’s been my privilege to help tell their stories, and I wake up every morning excited to do so for the clients I have now and for those I’ll have in the future.

Thankfully, none of those stories has ever involved a tragic and unexpected outcome. I pray it remains that way.