Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sundays with Steve - Public Relations Impossible

These Sunday's segments are written by my husband, Mr. Jenny. Here's what he has to say about his posts:

I’ve been writing these weekly stories about life in Northern Idaho, as a youngster and as growing into a young man, primarily for our family. And I'm delighted to share them with you. Just between us, I’m anticipating being cranky when some whipper-snapper who may not even be born yet harasses me in 30 years or so with 'Grandpa, tell me about when you were a boy.' That will probably be after the mad cow disease has set in and erased whatever memory is left. So these are the not-so-dramatic adventures of a Baby Boomer in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

Public Relations Impossible

While managing my National Guard dump trucks on weekends in the 1970s, during the week I managed a camera and a typewriter for a large public corporation. It was an ideal job for a young man just out of college and after a year in the Army, although I didn’t recognize it as such at the time. It was also an impossible job, a task I recognized immediately, and I knew that it was job would never be successfully accomplished.

I was a young man bent on not joining the family business, at least for a while. I knew in my heart, deep in my gut, that once I joined the family business I would be there for the rest of my life, and at that age, I just wasn’t willing to do that.

My new job then, having come home after avoiding an Army assignment to Vietnam, was to convince a company’s employees, and indirectly the people living around the company, that the company was a pretty good neighbor, despite the public relations disaster that was going on about it, and despite the black hat most saw on my employer’s head and around it cold heart.

The company, Potlatch Forests, Inc., known through its history as PFI, was not only the single largest employer in our town, but the largest polluter, as well. The company had a long and good history with North Idaho, until it built a giant paper mill there in the 1950s.

The mill was up-wind from the town, and our town paid the price with horrid air pollution that was based in the sulfurs used to make paper. Our town was at the confluence of two rivers – the Snake and the Clearwater – located in a very deep valley that was susceptible to frequent air inversions that could trap that pollution for days. Even when the breezes were blowing, you could always smell the mill’s pollution. The mill also dumped millions of gallons of waste water every day into the former pristine Clearwater, fouling the huge fish migrations and the source of our drinking water.

The real problem for PFI was that its employees lived there in the sea of stinking pollution with the rest of us. The employees were as antagonistic to PFI as the rest of the population.

In the early 1970s the Army Corp of Engineers was finishing the last of the Snake River dams that would create a massive “lake” from our town, downriver to the Columbia River and on to the Pacific Ocean. The Army Corp would not have PFI pumping millions of gallons of untreated waste water into its new lakes.

PFI announced plans to spend $100-million on air and water clean-up, and hired me to communicate the project to its employees.

I spent the next five years writing a monthly newspaper that was mailed to each employee and the public in our region. I filled it with news stories not only of very serious nature such as the building of massive air and water pollution abatement programs in Lewiston, but also of the daily lives of its employees, and the daily comings and goings of its operations scattered at two dozen locations through-out the region.

From the outside looking in, large corporations often appear to be monolithic, with a single voice emanating from its public relations department, or its lawyers. In the case of PFI from the moment its new pulp and paper mill went into operation, that voice was defensive, aggressive, dismissive, and abrupt.

While a new corps of young, intelligent mangers took over the corporation in the early 1970s, acknowledging the company’s huge problems and putting forth resolutions that include a lot of public humility, my job was to put a human face on the company.

I spent two weeks out of each month for those years driving to each of the company’s facilities and writing news stories about its people. I meet thousands, and made friends with many. I took hundreds, maybe thousands of photos every month, and published the best. I found, as I have most times in my life, that when you dig beneath the surface of any cliché, you find real people living real lives, with their rewards and disappointments, doing the best job they can, and living the best lives they can. There were no corporate monsters trying enslave the proletariat for their own riches, but there were erstwhile people at every level, at every location, doing jobs that depended on producing products that the public would buy.

Some of those jobs were just a joy to dig into, and to understand, some were very surprising: the tug boat captain on Lake Coeur d’Alene pulling hug tows of logs 50 miles down-lake to a mill, the hundreds of truck drivers moving wood chips from remote sites to the paper mill, the loggers in the remote forests cutting trees, the thousands of mill workers throughout the State. These people were human, they were kind, they were intelligent, and they were hard working.

After five years I was bored, I was frustrated at no upward career movement, and I quit. I wonder in years since when looking back, if I had lost my mind about then, giving up what was really a dream job at that time.

Mrs. Steve and I returned to Lewiston a few years ago, the first visit in decades, and talked about perhaps retiring back to that place in the future. It is a very pleasant town, still smallish, but one that seems to have grown and matured. Except for one small thing: I opened the sliding door on the motel balcony one morning, over-looking the lake that use to be the Snake River, and took a deep breath. After hundreds of millions of dollars, that smell of the paper mill, that sulfur, is still there at least some of the time. I don’t think we’ll be retiring there.

* * *
Speaking of jobs that you wonder in later years why you ever left them, my next job after leaving PFI, was as the sports information director of the Big Sky Athletic Conference, at its office at Boise, ID. My job, in a nutshell, was to attend college football games each weekend through the fall, college basketball games through the winter, put on the conference basketball play-off tournament in March, and then do some low-key PR work the rest of the year. Why did I give that up after two years? Was I nuts? Maybe. Could I get it back today?

That’s when I joined the family business.

(c) 2010 Stephen J. Matlock
This publication is the exclusive property of Stephen J. Matlock and is protected
under the US Copyright Act of 1976 and all other applicable international, federal, state and local laws. The contents of this post/story may not be reproduced as a whole or in part, by any means whatsoever, without consent of the author, Stephen J. Matlock. All rights reserved.


Judie said...

What an interesting life, Steve!! All those sweet jobs you gave up! So just what is the "family" business? Not the Mafia, I hope!!

Ms. A said...

Being raised in the shadows of a paper mill, I know all too well, that smell. Both my parents worked at Champion, until they retired.

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

I left a couple of great PR jobs after just a couple of years, too. I think when you're young you often find growth and challenge by moving on. We were lucky, jobs were available then!

Bonnie said...

I think it is so good that you are writing about your life. Your grandkids will be so fortunate to have it. I wish my parents/grandparents had done the same.

You have had some awesome and interesting jobs!!

Pat Tillett said...

Another great story! The damage big business and "progress" have done is amazing. It always seems to come with a price attached. I used to work in a mill for US Gypsum company. It was like working inside of a machine. A hot, wet, stinky machine!