My career in writing, public relations and marketing began in rural Connecticut at the age of 10 or so, when I punched out a newsletter on my mother’s old Remington typewriter, then peddled it door-to-door. The neighbors were mostly my relatives and no one knew who I was writing about until they plunked down a nickel for their copy. That early start could have led to a career as a gossip columnist, but thankfully it did not.
After leaving behind my home base to seek adventure 1,200 miles away, I worked in a variety of industries, from designer apparel to community relations in Miami, always utilizing my particular skill set among other job duties. My biggest challenge in public relations came when a jet carrying 110 crew and passengers crashed in the Florida Everglades, killing all aboard. It was a particularly gruesome crash and no intact bodies were found, only human remains. The National Transportation Safety Board investigators were immediately on the case, searching the wreckage for clues as to what went so horribly wrong. Several days later, that investigation mentioned the name of the company I worked for at the time. The following morning, television cameras, reporters and journalists were at the front door of my company, which now had stationed a security guard.
Immediately on the heels of the daily media frenzy at the door, the lawsuits began. Initially, the company lawyer advised our CEO not to speak to the media or to any of the lawyers filing wrongful death suits. He said he should be the only one dealing with the lawyers and I could speak with the media since PR & marketing was one of my many job responsibilities.
I dove into the challenge with some initial confidence, but was quickly overwhelmed by the scope of the tragedy itself. I prayed each morning for my own strength, for the lives lost, and the anguish of those left behind. Worse yet, our attorney had extensive aeronautics experience, but was not a trial lawyer. And my foremost qualification for my end of the deal was the creation of a glossy global newsletter, “puff’ pieces sent to the local newspapers, and carefully crafted letters to prospective customers.
The story of the crash, the grieving families, and the slow-moving NTSB investigation was at the top of the news page every day. I finally convinced the company attorney to walk into the CEO’s office with me and strongly suggest the company hire two professionals to deal with this increasingly complex crisis. He agreed, and left it to us to hire those specialists. The person I decided on had extensive experience making local politicians look capable, inspiring, and blameless. I worked closely with him, feeding him all the positive background about our company I could possibly think of, providing fuel for the “spin.”
Two weeks later, the NTSB released findings that concluded our company was not at fault and that a severed fuel line in the fuselage led to an uncontained failure and the catastrophic results that downed the aircraft. Soon after that, airline representatives and Red Cross counselors conducted a memorial service at the crash site and interdenominational prayers were said at the border of the swamp that swallowed much of the wreckage. Unfortunately, I don’t know what closure there was for any of us involved but I decided at that point freelance writing and working for nonprofits was a serendipitous career move.