How PR Boot Camp Paid Off

How do you develop a career niche? Sometimes it’s about having the right experience and interest and taking advantage of the right opportunity at the right time.

During a recent interview for a podcast designed to take listeners inside communications, the host asked me how I, and by extension, Tanner Friedman, got started creating crisis PR as a professional niche. If you have 32 minutes to dig pretty deep on crisis communications, you can listen to the podcast here.

20 years ago next week, just shortly after I made the transition from broadcast news to PR, a global airline decided to do something nice for its customers after a series of service issues. At least some of its customers.

At the annual gathering of Michigan business, government and community leaders on Mackinac Island, the Mackinac Policy Conference (full disclosure: the Conference and its organizer, the Detroit Regional Chamber, are Tanner Friedman clients), airline executives handed out free travel vouchers to attendees. What was designed as a goodwill effort completely backfired.

News stories hit the next day in Detroit on radio and TV about the “fat cats” getting free trips while “regular people” suffered through flight delays and lost luggage. Up on the Island, the airline realized it had a full-blown PR disaster on its hands. An executive turned to two senior leaders of an agency who were at the Conference, one of whom was named Don Tanner.

They told the executive, “We just hired a guy who used to work at Channel 4 and WWJ. He should be able to help when we get home.”

For the next three years, I went to crisis PR boot camp and I was a glutton for every part of it. It was seven days a week for an airline that experienced a crippling pilots’ strike, a mechanic-led slowdown, a blizzard creating so much havoc, customers were stranded on planes for up to 12 hours and on and on and on.

As author Jeffrey Toobin said about starting his law career on the Iran-Contra prosecution team, “I started as the low man on the totem pole, but at least I was on the totem pole.” There was so much work and my news career prepared me well for some of it, that I was quickly involved in strategy, execution and even serving as an on-the-record spokesperson.

I had an immediate supervisor in Don and executives on the client side who believed in me and trusted me, taught me and put me in positions to succeed, even though it meant carrying around two pagers and joining conference calls at all hours. I learned how to do crisis media relations via phone, not via mass statement. It was a new challenge every day. After three years, when new communications leadership at the airline decided the company had been “too accessible,” even while surviving the worst of times, I graduated from boot camp.

Consistently, I earned other crisis business, including with a cable company, which provided similar public popularity, as well as experience, to the airline. I now draw frequently on the fundamentals of those days, even though communications and media have changed.

Over the years, I have talked to many professionals about their niches and what’s fascinating is that very few actually planned their careers that way. They usually say “It just happened, but I’m glad it did because I really like it.” As another boot camp veteran, Bill Murray in “Stripes” remarked, “That’s a fact, Jack.”