Posted by Matt Gentile
Take me out to the Ballpark... Please
“Make news, not news releases.” That’s what legendary PR pioneer, Aaron Cushman said while in town recently to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award and present to the Florida Public Relations Association Annual Conference held at the Ritz in Sarasota, FL a few weeks ago.
When you think of heroes, many people may think of sports figures like Babe Ruth or political leaders like George Washington. The one common element is their ability to inspire people, whether it is living a moment vicariously through these larger than life figures or fomenting a revolution that will forever change the world, they all have an innate ability to make a change in people’s lives. Well, Mr. Cushman has that awe-inspiring characteristic and is without question a light for all of us PR practitioners out there struggling to find our way in the dark.
Cushman is a one of a kind original. His parents wanted him to be a doctor, lawyer or accountant. In fact, he studied accounting for one year at the University of Illinois, but got called up during WWII. A fate that would ultimately change his professional path. As he told it, “I was flying a bombing run over Europe with flak going off all around me and my buddies screaming and I knew I could never go back to accounting. Cost accounting, give me a break.”
The Three Stooges and Chez Paree
After returning from the war Cushman enrolled in the school of Business and Journalism. There was no PR school at that time. After graduation he was hired as the Promotions Director for a famous Chicago’s most famous dinner theatre, Chez Paree. He said that he didn’t know what he was doing for the first two weeks, but after a little while it became clear that the reporters all wanted the merchandise that he was getting from such famous acts as Jane Russell, Nat King Cole and The Three Stooges.
He worked for two Presidents, Truman and Eisenhower, but said all anyone ever wants to know about is The Stooges. “Those guys were the best, just regular guys. To see them off stage, you would never know they were entertainers. We would be walking down the street and all of the sudden a woman would walk up to us and say, “hey, aren’t you guys…?’ and all of the sudden The Stooges would be into their act. Their only prop was a comb. Moe would comb his hair forward, Larry would comb his up and Curley, well he didn’t have any hair. After 10 seconds they would be doing their slap shtick and pretty soon the entire city of Chicago knew The Stooges were in town.”
Cushman eventually dropped all of his entertainment client’s because the business world would not take him seriously after they found out he promoted entertainers. “After they found out I promoted the entertainers they all thought ‘oh, he is one of them’ meaning he wasn’t educated or from their social status and couldn’t possibly help in serious corporate business affairs. “I knew instantly that I had to drop all of my entertainment clients if I was ever going to be taken seriously in the corporate world. It was a pretty gutsy move at the time because 90% of our business was from the entertainment industry, but after 90 days we were just as successful with corporate clients.” Mr. Cushman went on to establish Aaron D. Cushman and Associates – now Cushman/Amberg Communications, Inc. which today, has grown into one of the nation’s 15 largest and prestigious firms, representing clients as diverse as Keebler, Maytag, Marriott Hotels, Chrysler, Century 21 and Ralston Purina.
7th Inning Stretch and The Cookie Wars
Listening to Mr. Cushman tell his stories was a fascinating walk back to a simpler time in PR, when there were no rules, standards or case studies. Cushman was literally flying by the seat of his pants. At one point, while working for legendary baseball owner, Bill Veeck, he was asked what he thought of putting together a 50,000 person orchestra. Cushmen said, yes, we can do that. All patrons were asked to bring an instrument to the ballgame and in the seventh inning, Cushman has the conductor for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra walk out to home plate where he climbed a seven feet ladder and led the entire crowd in what must have been the most unusual version of Take Me Out to the Ball Game ever heard. According to Cushman, that was the beginning of what became baseball 7th inning stretch tradition.
Mr. Cushman shared many great stories including “The Cookie Wars,” where Cushman was able to convince the Wall Street Journal to run a story that ‘Keebler doesn’t make cookies with cooks and regular ovens, but bakes them in hollow trees with elves.’ The creation of the Keebler Elves generated over $5 million worth of media coverage and gained Keebler a 31% marketshare its first year. To hear Cushman tell it, publicity stunts are more than just fun and games…“When the U.S. President flies to an aircraft carrier to announce the end of the war, that’s a stunt. They are a valuable marketing tool.”
PR has Given Me a Great Life
The one comment that sticks with me is when Aaron Cushman said (paraphrasing)…In those days, the only people who were in PR were well-off and already socially connected or guys like me and Harold (Burson) who weren’t, but were aggressive and learned quickly that we could hob nob with the rich and famous and share in some of the best things that life had to offer by being in this business. As the son of a steel worker from Pittsburgh, I can relate very well. I have had the opportunity to meet Sheiks, Senator’s and a few Heavyweights over the years; I have also had the opportunity to travel the world. I don’t know of any other profession that can offer someone with no social, business or political connections the type of opportunities that I’ve enjoyed over the years strictly based on hard work, writing ability, creativity and courage.
Aaron Cushman left us with one final kernel of wisdom, “Have Fun”. Listening to him, I believe that we all need to remember that this business, at its core, is about having fun. It is too easy to take ourselves too seriously, especially as we struggle to make sense of how to maximize the value new media channels and understand their application to our business. There is enough stress in life without worrying about how to reach every Tom, Dick and Jane in bloggerland. Let’s stop the whining and focus on the basics; figure out how to have fun with the message, the audience and the channel, and start making news again.
Aaron Cushman, take me out to the ball game... Please!
Listen to Aaron Cushman on how The World Turns on the Use of Public Relations. Visit the Florida Public Relations Association Annual Conference blog for more information about Aaron Cushman, Harold Burson and the many other industry professionals that presented.
Matt Gentile is the PR and Communication Manager for Florida’s largest and leading real estate company, Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate (FloridaMoves.com) where he directs PR and media strategy to create "buzz" for the company’s 5,500 Sales Associates and brand throughout the Palm Beaches, Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, Naples, Ft. Myers, Sarasota, Orlando and Tampa Bay.
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Great post! I enjoyed Aaron Cushman's presentation as well. Sometimes we get so caught up in our jobs as PR professionals that we forget to have fun. Thanks for the reminder!
Matt: We slam people here, engage in satire, get all riled up but the truth is that for some indecipherable reason we love this business. Thanks for reminding us why. You know, William Safire, who now heads the English Mafia for The New York Times, started out in PR. He looks back on the time fondly as being full of adventure. We can have fun, even in Bloggerland.