Top Ten Things I learned About PR Working for a Poultry Company
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- Dead chickens or turkeys are still dead poultry even if you talk about their “livability” rate instead of mortality rate. That is just twisted.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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!