Magazine article Communication World

Setting the Stage: PR Professional Finds Meaning in 'Doing the Job' for Farm Aid

Magazine article Communication World

Setting the Stage: PR Professional Finds Meaning in 'Doing the Job' for Farm Aid

Article excerpt

It's about 6:30 on a cool but pleasant Saturday night. I'm in a supermarket on the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio, buying vegetables. A lot of vegetables. And not because I'm suddenly hungry or worried about those five-a-day guidelines.

"What's this one?" inquires the cashier. "A squash or gourd?"

"It's a squash."

"What kind of squash?" he asks.

"I don't know--spaghetti?" I stammer. No, not spaghetti, I muse. It's too stubby to be spaghetti squash. I consider explaining that we bought it only for looks, but stop myself and ask him, "Uh, what do you have on your list?"

He starts to flip through a card attached to the register containing a list of aspiring vegetable contenders. "Acorn, butternut, turban...."

"Acorn, that sounds good," I reply. He shrugs and rings it up. Next to me, our art director shrugs too. "Well, it looks a bit like a big acorn," I say, helpfully. The scanner goes beep, and acorn it is.

REALITY CHECK

Yes, I am a communication professional. I'm not a college student, gofer or lackey. In fact, I've been in the business for more than a dozen years, from print to video to audio to public relations and back again. Major international agencies, US$100,000-a-month clients, successful pitches. The works.

But today, I'm not crafting position statements for embattled CEOs, or designing a guerilla PR strategy to take the online marketplace by storm. I'm doing whatever I can to help make a press conference look better. In short, I'm doing my job.

Maybe a little more explanation is in order. I'm here in Columbus to help with media relations for the Farm Aid benefit concert, staged annually to raise awareness and support for U.S. family farmers, and to help keep them on their land. Founded by recording artists Nell Young, John Mellencamp and, of course, Willie Nelson, Farm Aid is a nonprofit organization that awards grants to farm, church and rural service organizations, which provide direct support to family farms.

The PR firm where I work has been helping Farm Aid for almost a decade, not just during the concerts but also throughout the year. Farm Aid actually spends much more time talking--to farmers, communities, civic leaders and the public about the issues that matter to family farmers and America--than rocking.

But all that is pretty far from my thoughts right now. I've been sent on a mission, along with our firm's art director and account director's father, to fix the press conference. The actual event itself is in great shape--we have a good set of speakers, a ton of media (nearly 200 representatives from across the U.S.) and plenty of farmers to tell their stories.

Now we need to fix the stage. Take the ugly risers, cafeteria tables and deck chairs before us and somehow make it look, well, like Farm Aid.

As an agency, we've learned a lot of lessons from 10 years of Farm Aid concerts. Just by their very nature, large-scale publicity events have a certain amount of uncertainty to them--something will go wrong. This is a lesson we've learned the hard way over the years.

I mean, look at our setup: we're throwing together touring musicians and crews from all corners of the country, creating a patchwork logistics staff that only see each other once a year, using a rotating cast of volunteers for crucial roles and barely saving time for a sound check. Who has time for a press conference run-through?

Oh, and did I mention that the concert changes location every year? After all, Farm Aid represents family farms from across the U.S. So each year Farm Aid goes up at a new venue, in a new town. It's a bit like building a house, and as soon as you're finished, knocking it down and starting over 500 miles away with a different contractor.

CALL FOR ACTION

Little wonder, then, that the unforeseen is the only thing that could be foreseen. This particular year, one of the surprises was the press conference. …

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