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Top Ten Things I learned About PR Working for a Poultry Company

October 8, 2014

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Top Ten Things I learned About PR Working for a Poultry Company

Twenty-one years ago in October 1993, I took a three-month “sabbatical” from my job writing, producing and marketing media materials for the Mennonite church. I contacted several companies within a 50 mile radius to find anyone willing to take a gamble on a 41-year-old “intern” who had been professionally employed for about 17 years. I offered to work 32 hours a week for anyone who could give me a different media environment to see what I could learn about how other organizations or businesses conduct their public relations. I did this to improve my skills and have a refresher instead of going back to school for a master’s or other degree.

Any time you work for a specific company or position for a long period of time it can be eye opening to take a break (and I was lucky to have a paid sabbatical which the company offered at that time even for my level of employee). They were enlightened enough to know how it can benefit both the employee and the company. Sometimes that fresh outlook can be gained by just a week’s vacation, a maternity/paternity leave, or even just a nice long weekend or walk around the building if you only have five minutes. When I go for my lunch time walk (usually 20 minutes), I often come back with a fresh idea to apply to a project.

The corporate communications director for WLR Foods was a woman I’ll just call Gail. This was one of the largest poultry companies at that time in the Shenandoah Valley. Gail saw my offer and according to her description, pretty much jumped at the chance for some free labor. They were entering their busiest season of the year: the holidays (think all those holiday turkeys), were planning a grand opening for an expanded facility in West Virginia, had an annual investor’s meeting coming up, and eventually, one of their turkeys was heading for a pardon at the White House! Lots of publicity needed. Lots of positive, glowing publicity.

Since I grew up on a poultry farm (see an early blog post here on my sister and my “fight” in the chicken house) it somehow felt appropriate to be going back to my roots. Plus when I met my husband, he was working in a poultry plant, what some people feel is the lowest of all bottom feeder jobs.

A Shenandoah Valley legend, Charles Wampler, Sr., began artificially incubating turkey eggs back in 1922 which changed the poultry industry forever (some would say, unfortunately, getting away from free range turkeys and chickens). His son, Charles Wampler, Jr. (born on Thanksgiving Day, 1915, and as far as I know, still living) not only grew up on his Dad’s turkey farm, he was instrumental in the long success of Wampler Foods (before it became WLR Foods), and “gave back” by turning into a huge Valley philanthropist. In 1993, he was officially retired, but still loved coming into the office and plant once a week or so just to make some rounds and check on things.

P1060508Charles Wampler Jr., 1993

Charles Jr. checked on me one day too, as he shuffled through my boss’s office. He had one question for me: “Are we paying you?” I almost laughed. “No,” I assured him, “my company is paying my time and I am just here trying to learn all I can about how a communication office is run in a profit industry,” I said or something like that. That seemed to satisfy him. I got in that brief conversation why the company had been so successful: a caring, involved, and innovative employer who carefully watched every penny. I think other employees may have wondered if I was a lackey for management, sniffing out problems or issues in the company.

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Charles Wampler, Jr., Governer of West Virginia, Gaston Caperton, CEO Jim Keeler at the Moorefield WV plant expansion ribbon cutting.

A month after my internship with WLR Foods ended, Tyson Foods made an unsolicited offer to buy WLR Foods. Now that’s a PR nightmare I was glad I didn’t have to go through. WLR ended up merging with Cuddy Farms Inc. to avoid the take over and eventually merged with Pilgrim’s Pride in 2001, which still operates in the Valley. So here are the top ten things I learned in my almost three month experiment at WLR Foods.

  1. It is terrifying to go out and be interviewed for a job, even if you are volunteering to work for free, especially when you haven’t interviewed for a job for years and years.
  1. Dead chickens or turkeys are still dead poultry even if you talk about their “livability” rate instead of mortality rate. That is just twisted.
  1. Hairnets always look dorky, even on company big wigs, and in photo ops the nets are there to reassure the public that you take great pains not to let hair get in the food, (especially when a photographer is around). Actually the woven WLR Foods nets did a pretty good job.
  1. Gail kept high heels, a suit jacket, hair spray, mirror and lipstick in her office closet for any TV interview, photo or media op that might turn up, even though the office was eight miles from town and frequently covered with chicken feathers.
  1. When you work for free, you just might get free coffee and more frequent lunches out on the company dime than when employed by a church non-profit. But at the same time I learned to work under more deadline pressure than I’d ever experienced: news releases that had to be edited and faxed by 10 a.m. to meet a newspaper’s deadline, or higher ups that needed to be summoned immediately—such as if the governor was on the line.
  1. Turkey farmers on contract don’t necessarily understand (or cooperate) that they are to call Corporate Communications before granting any interview to local media. (Gail lived in fear of a negative story breaking in the local newspaper of conditions in a poultry house showing piles of manure or “mortality”—dead chickens.)
  1. As head of Corporate Communications, you take the heat from the CEO if any of your staff (or unpaid intern) makes a mistake or words something poorly. (I ruefully recall the time I overheard the CEO take Gail to task for the wording in a flier I had written—and she never passed the blame off on me as the intern.

P1060492(Yes, I had a dreadful perm at the time.)

  1. There were only two degrees of separation between me and President (at the time) Bill Clinton. A photographer, Patricia Barrow, at that time of Silver Spring, Maryland, took this photo of me, above, for the WLR Food Company magazine. I was a little bit awed that the day prior, she had taken the family Christmas photo of the Clintons. (And this, I might add, was 1993, Clinton’s first Christmas in the White House, long before all of the Lewinsky business gave a bad name to interns everywhere, through which Clinton suffered a huge fall in my esteem).

P1060510Gail reminded stockholders how the open house in West Virginia ended up in national poultry news.

  1. Some of my learnings are tongue-in-cheek, of course, but seriously I learned buckets of how to take any media coverage you receive and turn it into a “good news” media story for your investors, customers and fans. My boss was an expert at—and this was long before Googling, Facebook or Twitter—at sniffing out any reference to her company in the larger press, and then showcasing that in news releases, insider “leaks” faxed to the media. If the company had a record number of people volunteering for or donating to United Way, for example, that is a good news story about the company. I felt it was something that the Mennonite church, for whom I worked, could learn from—and work to send good news media stories to places like Newsweek, the Washington Post, etc.
  2. My boss’s number one priority while she worked for the company was creating and maintaining her company’s positive image in the community and the larger poultry industry. There is a long history/reputation of conditions in poultry plants being like sweat shops. Community sentiment about stinky poultry operations, possible polluted ground water, feathers along the highways, smelly rendering plants, demonstrations by animal rights activities, health enthusiasts (chemicals in foods), all led to a real “challenge,” to use one of the worst buzz words that ever came out of the PR field.

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Gail took a company—where many employees did look at the job as a bottom feeder job that was, hey “just a job that someone’s gotta do,” had them get spiffed up and included them in the company magazine, captured through day long photo shoots by professional photographers who, the day before, had been photographing the President of the United States. Her professionalism in carrying out PR for a company known mainly for the stink it creates stuck with me—these 20 plus years later.

 P1060500This article illustrated how employees were continuing their education in their off hours.

The take away? What is your number one priority in your job, or in your home? How can you look for and hold up the positive, rather than the negative? I admired Gail’s focus—and expertise in her field. While PR is sometimes spelled “P.U.” because of the lack of respect it engenders, (for overusing words like challenge instead of problem, or mortality instead of dead birds), Gail knew her job one was keeping a positive image for her company. Ultimately I walked away from any job requiring this level of spin, but we all deal with elements of our job that we don’t like. I’m grateful to Gail for taking me on—having an intern always requires some extra work and supervision—and I hope I did more good than harm.

When people wonder how I can stand being in one place and one job/employer for almost 40 years now, I point to experiences like this internship, three maternity leaves, and the constantly changing nature of technology and media. There’s something new every day.

***

How do you find focus for your work? How do you focus on the positive? How do you stay fresh? I always love to hear from anyone!

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11 Comments
  1. Caro-Claire Wiles permalink

    I do not have any stories to contribute as I was a stay at home mom, but I did enjoy reading about your experiences through the years and this one was very interesting and I shared it with my working friends. Thank you

  2. In the summer between one of my EMC years I worked at Baum’s Bologna Company in E-town, PA. It was was stinky business too. And worst of all revolting especially on Thursdays. Then I heard the report of the gun as they brought steers in for slaughter in a building close to where I was at a machine wrapping the bologna slices. Great incentive for pursuing my college degree I have to tell you!

    • I think I’ve heard about this job before!! (maybe when we discussed butchering the old fashioned way). I would not have had a heart for that kind of work either. My husband also inspired my children to do good school work this way too. 🙂

  3. Marvelous story. Now I want one just as cogent about your escapades with the Mennonites.

    (Thank your for the warm welcome.)

    • Hmm … A Mole Among the Mennonites? Think there would be readers? I like the idea of escapades, makes it sound exciting. Hope unpacking and all is going as well as can be expected.

  4. Athanasia permalink

    What an interesting experience.

    Not sure how to answer your questions…it seems you want to know how we stay positive under negative circumstances, possibly. Well, I have the best job ever, that is the truth. And a lot of library work is basically PR…writing notices for the bulletin or website or newsletter, promoting various projects throughout the year like Summer Reading Program. Setting up book displays to capture the interest of the browser, searching for books that reach reluctant readers ( often boys and men), keeping a wide enough selection for the voracious readers ( usually women and girls) and trying to guide them to something else when the book they wanted STILL has not been returned by a slower reader.

    I can’t think of many negative circumstances other than working with a budget that is a fraction of a public school library (we are a combo school/church library). I don’t have problem employees since they are all volunteers. If they are helping in the library it is because they want to, so they have a good atttitude. I work four days a week, get school vacations and some of the summer off, get to work with a wonderful group of volunteers, teachers and students. I do “work” Sunday am as we have the library open before and after church and during SS hour. Technically that is not paid , though I am salaried, not hourly

    I do put in lots of extra time, fitting in what I need to do when there is a more to do. Like the time I found thirty paper grocery bags of books outside the door. A person had called the office and asked if we take donations and the church secretary said sure! Or when a purchased shipment comes in. Sometimes I feel I am getting paid for just having fun and talking with folks about the best hobby in the world, reading.

  5. You do have a dream job for a lover of books!! I did a writing workshop with 3 other women recently, one of them a librarian, who also does PR for their projects and new ventures. She said she enjoys writing the news releases. That is one of my least favorite, least creative items on my job description, more like a job that needs to be done. I love the enthusiasm you have for your job and the volunteers who work with you. Must be a larger church/school combo. Very cool. My daughter’s friend has a job working in the children’s section of a library in a large metro area and she is always posting things on Facebook regarding the comments children make to her, the displays she creates, the fun she has. She has just decided to go for her master’s in library science. Yay. Anyway, thanks for the peek into your life too!

  6. Julia Witmer permalink

    I have always enjoyed reading what you write. Now I have found this article which resonates with me. I did several stints in a poultry plant post high school and during college breaks. I also grew up gathering eggs in my parents chicken house, the old kind with nesting boxes and chickens running around under my feet. Our neighbors have organic chickens grazing the pasture fields after the dairy cows. They also sometimes graze our lawn, garden, and flower beds, scratching up the insects. I remember the turkeys on range in Rockingham county back when I came to EMC in the 60’s. What goes around comes around.

    • Julia, I’m so glad you found this and connected! I like your poultry history–and when I was younger we also had the hens in nesting boxes and chickens running around and PECKING your legs if they were the mean kind. 🙂 Thanks also for mentioning the turkeys on range in Rockingham County, I had forgotten those days but can picture them now. Thanks for coming around to this blog! I am curious how you found it. You were at EMC a bit earlier than me. Blessings!

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  1. When I “worked” for Charles Wampler Jr. | findingharmonyblog

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