Lessons Learned – When the First Lady’s Office is on the Line
In the wake of the passing of former First Lady Nancy Reagan, many have great stories to tell. Here’s mine.
The question on the telephone was instantly electrifying. “Do you think you could help us with a speech from Nancy Reagan?”
Doubtless some young career-types get this sort of call every day, but for me it was out of the blue. “You mean the First Lady?” my 30-something voice managed in rattled understatement.
“Yes. Get back to me as soon as you can.” Click.
It was February 1987, but in vivid powerful memory it could have been yesterday. The call from the local economic development leader in Pasadena, California flipped over my entire life. A few days later on a beautiful winter day in Southern California, I was standing next to 50-some ravenous national journalists, all watching guests munch down on gourmet chicken salad. Based on their glaring sideway looks, it was somehow my fault.
But I’m getting ahead of the story.
What can one learn when confronted with the unplanned magnitude of a national event?
Lesson No. 1 – You need professionals, friends, and supporters and lots of them, not necessarily in that order.
A lunch for 200-plus people sounds pretty simple for marketing and public relations people, even if it does involve media. But when you toss in the Secret Service, particularly a Secret Service who almost had their principal assassinated a few years earlier, life gets complex in a daunting way very, very quickly.
Secret Service means forget a served meal. It means you have to have a back door for an unobserved arrival. It means the Secret Service is going to crawl all over your facility a few hours before. It means you’re likely going to have to re-set all the already-set tables and chairs, just because one Secret Service agent wants three more feet of open space between the First Lady and the crowd.
So you better have lots of friends and supporters who are willing to go the extra mile. That means people who will help you when you make mistakes or miscalculate, however well-meaning. You’re going to need them.
Lesson No. 2 – Be a smooth rock.
When a national figure like the First Lady wants to show up and make a national media statement, you suddenly have 3,000 new best friends. These are “friends” who don’t fall in to the category described above. These are “friends” who want to make their mark. These are vultures in human guise. An invitation to the luncheon won’t do. The invitation has to be coupled with the private reception for the First Lady. So when you get to be the person who says “no” to a Very Important Person, you better be a smooth rock. This also applies when the Secret Service finds a toy water pistol in the receptionist’s desk about two hours before the event. It’s amazing how spoken words can acquire a level of radiated heat that typically only exists in a thermonuclear reaction.
Lesson No. 3 – Be prepared to improvise and conquer.
The advance team from a presidential figure often includes people who aren’t very nice. They aren’t terribly interested in you or your organization. Sorry, that’s an overstatement. They aren’t generally interested in you at all. They are interested in making their principal look good. So they threaten. And they question your genetic ancestry. And at the moment you need them, they disappear.
Once the guests were all seated and waiting patiently for the First Lady, all the national and local Los Angeles media was showing up in the back. At this point, that’s where I was. The advance team had required them to pre-register, an anachronistic and unnecessarily belittling practice that generally makes journalists madder than hell. So those who hadn’t pre-registered were denied access. When they objected mightily, the sole remaining advance person pointed to me, like I had something to do with it.
Meanwhile, the cookies and lemonade set aside for the journalists were vanishing at a rate that would have impressed biblical locusts. In short order, they became extinct. “Where’s lunch?” many journalists openly growled as they watched guests wolf down a gourmet lunch just a few feet in front of them. So, I got out my American Express card and told three staffers to run, not walk, to a nearby grocery and buy every cold cut, cheese slice and ready-made sandwich they could find. Ten minutes later, they returned and the improvised spread was laid out. The immediate carnage of 50-plus journalists jousting for position was breath-taking. I watched a tiny, thin wisp of a television reporter build and bolt down at least 3,000 calories in an awe-inspiring concoction that could only be called legendary. In a matter of minutes, only crumbs remained. Temporarily satiated, the journalists went back to work.
Lesson No. 4 – Energy will appear when you least expect it.
Four-plus sleepless non-stop days and nights unexpectedly crashed to an end when the First Lady finished her remarks, waved to the crowd and left. In the days before Five-Hour Energy Drinks, coffee was the answer. Good or bad, it didn’t matter. The energy was there. At the end of the event, the journalists all raced out, clutching the media kits that the Advance Team From Hell had forbidden that I hand out. Community leaders, seeing me standing, now bereft of any responsibility (except to document the media coverage and debrief), wandered up with this common phrase: “Great job. Wasn’t that fantastic?” Followed by (in an incredulous tone): “How did you pull it off?” At that point and today, many years later, I don’t have a full answer.
But I am very grateful for the many friends and supporters who all worked together in an amazing way for four wonderful days and nights. It can happen to you. Thank you, Nancy Reagan.
By Michael Snyder, Managing Principal, MEK Group