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Pro-bono PR scores a global coup.


Next time you shoot down a pro-bono request for your time, talent and sweat, think of Peter B. Necarsulmer. Then kick yourself The 34-year-old founder/chief executive of the PBN Company, a San Francisco-based public relations consultancy. He is setting up an office in Moscow, helping launch the first US business hotel in the Soviet Union, and is on a first-name basis with power people in the White House and the US Secret Service, Soviet consulates, embassies and the KGB and major editors, reporters, broadcasters and photographers in the local and global Press corps. And many of his 25 staffers know the players, too.

All because Necarsulmer said "yes" on short notice and didn't carp about cash. It was a crapshoot; his firm could have stumbled badly in full view of the world media. Or his seven-year-old firm could pole vault to international prominence.

Indeed, the last thing PBN needed last spring was another client, especially a non-paying one. The San Francisco consultancy, along with its Sacramento office, was swamped with work on a California ballot measure seeking to hike the alcoholic beverage excise tax.

Plus, it was pouring on the coals to wrap up a 100-page strategic plan to restructure the Association of California Insurance Companies' communication efforts.

PBN's phone had been ringing ever since its client, BP (British Petroleum) America, won rave reviews for the skillful way it handled an oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach, Calif. PBN, as a member of BP's crisis team, kept California lawmakers plugged in on the disaster every step of the way and is credited with helping to avert Political haymaking over the oil company's misfortunes.

But when the phone rang on May 23 at 4:30 pm, Necarsulmer answered. It was Charlotte Maillaird-swig, San Francisco's chief of protocol on the other end of the line. "Mikhail Gorbachev and Mrs. Gorbachev are coming to San Francisco in 10 days. Could you handle the press as a favor?" Necarsulmer, cool under pressure but prone toward adrenaline rushes, didn't need any time to check if he could pack the event into an already chockablock schedule. He didn't bother to ask who would pick up his out-of-pocket costs. And he didn't stop to worry if his staff or clients objected to PBN repping the commander-in-chief of a Country once committed to "burying" America. In 10 seconds flat, Necarsulmer said "yes."

Timing Was Right

Despite his work load, the timing couldn't have been better. The importance, the significance, of this was that just as San Francisco is coming out of the bad dream of the earthquake, who is descending on us but the world's first couple?" recalls the agency chief. "What's more, the project really pumped up our staff, Everyone was motivated. How else were we able to do 10 days worth of work for our other clients in just a single weekend?" It was the weekend from hell: a full campaign press kit pounded out, speeches written, 40 targeted "interest group" mailings finalized and the 100-page plan finished. With client approval, other work was put on hold. The firm had to clear the decks because the next week and a half would be 20-hour days for every PBN staffer.

Necarsulmer; his senior partners, Sam Sacco and Susan Thurman; and other team members were no strangers to pressure. Besides choreographing the information flow on the BP spill to state lawmakers, PBN handled PR on the 50th anniversary of the Golden Gate bridge and is an ongoing consultant, along with Manning Selvage Lee, to the California lottery and a host of other clients.

But this time, PBN didn't have a single client with a focused goal. By taking on the project, the agency was thrust into the role of cop, coordinator, liaison, logistical chief and information source. What's more, they were performing this ballet before an audience of seasoned critics; some 2,800 media people would swarm into San Francisco, plus officials and security people from two superpower governments, host politicos from California as well as business and corporate leaders, all eager to bathe in the charisma of Mr. and Mrs. Gorbachev.

So where do you start? Necarsulmer had to get the word out fast that PBN was the sole source for press credentials. More than 3,000 media people were besieging the mayor's office, Stanford University (where Gorbachev would visit), the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the White House for press passes. "We had to centralize requests," he says. PBN took to the wires and rifled out an advisory via AP, UPI, Reuters, Business Wire and Bay City News Service. But to gain clout, the first advisory came from San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos, the United States Secret Service, the Consulate of the Soviet Union and the PBN Co. which was identified as the "official press office."

But "handling the press" involved much more than just doling out credentials. PBN staffers broke up into internal teams covering logistics and communications, site advance, credentialing and news bureaus. Originally, Necarsulmer had no plans for a news bureau but it quickly became obvious that PBN would be sending out hard news updates as they broke plus color and background for any features.

As seasoned journalists applied for credentials and started pouring into town, PBN had to make hard decisions on its own and in concert with others. To make sure only legitimate press people got credentialed access, the finn worked closely with Sig Rogich, a special assistant to President Bush; Tom Harrington, press officer for the US Secret Service; Sergi Aivazian, vice counsel for the Soviet Counsel General, plus Scott Shafer and Art Silverman, San Francisco Mayor Agnos' press secretaries. Plus, there were general credentials, "event specific" credentials and "platform reservations" needed for camera crews.

Setting Up Media Pool Was Tricky

Fine, but once credentialed, who would get in close to the newsmakers? "We didn't want to play Solomon," smiles Necarsulmer. "We didn't want to say AP, you're posted two feet away from Gorbachev. Agence France-Presse, you're three feet away. Tass, you're four feet away.' That's a formula for suicide. We wanted that monkey off our back." To pry it off, PBN named "pool captains" and let them pick the players and orchestrate the coverage. Diplomatically-since has to work in this town long after Gorbachev departs-Bay Area press people were named pool captains.

Fairness was the driver. The print pools were headed by leading local media chiefs. Leading network radio and newservice executives headed the photo pool and broadcast pools.

"Our job with the media was very basic, very straightforward," contends Necarsulmer. "To help make the Secret Service and the KGB understand the importance of press access and maximize that access working within security constraints." As a result, PBN staffers, working with George Oganov, a senior press officer in the Soviet Embassy in Washington, spent the week negotiating coverage, access for the US journalists and the 25 largely nonEnglish-speaking Soviet journalists.

Necarsulmer says the june 3-4 visit went off with very few hitches. "There was a melding of personal agendas with the public's interest and with the exception of one free-lance photographer shooting for the Associated Press, it went smoothly." The photog, says the PR person, became violent and aggressive" in trying to get his photos. Unfortunately for him, TV cameras were capturing his tantrums and the AP Photo Bureau was watching; he was reportedly sacked on the spot.

"The problems we had came entirely from the photo agencies," insists Necarsulmer. "We tried to accommodate all of them and while competitiveness can make coverage good, when you add in the economic incentive [driving] free-lance photo agency people, it can be ugly."

Still, the visit was plagued with a sprinkling of human and mechanical botches. In setting up the media center in the grand ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel, technicians wired the "mult box"-a device broadcasters plug into for live audio feeds-but accidentally mislabeled the jacks, according to Sacco, the PBN executive in charge. "We had set up 200 connections for English translations and 50 connections for Russian translation," Sacco recalls. \%en Gorbachev was speaking at Stanford, the US radio reporters got a live feed in Russian. "They all turned around, looked at me and said almost simultaneously, 'there's no English,' then rushed over to replug into the correct jacks. It was quickly resolved but if they would have had machetes, I would have lost my head."

Another technical snafu occurred when ex-President Ronald Reagan left the Soviet Consul General's home after breakfast and the media center got video but no audio of the former president's remarks. The press, who weren't in the specific pool team covering the event on the spot, had to get their story while cooped up in the Fairmont. "Print and radio was not pleased," sighs Sacco. "They could not get anybody's voice." However, the PBN staffer saved the moment by asking US TV station KRON to rerun a portion of the tape it shot while Pacific Bell relayed the sound to the media center. Says Sacco: "These glitches are just natural."

Media Teamwork Paid Off

Sacco and Necarsulmer both stress that PBN didn't run the show solo. "We had tremendous cooperation from a whole lot of people," insists the agency boss. Personal glory and corporate self-promotion were put on the back burner by a variety of businesses. Necarsulmer, particularly, praises the Fairmont Hotel's savvy and swift-acting staff including general manager Herman Wiener and public relations director Sharon Arnold. "They were there all the time, helping, bringing sandwiches." Ketchum Public Relations' San Francisco office pitched in with three volunteers including Jim Caudill, the executive in charge of the firm's business and financial division. The backbone of the entire venture: Pacific Bell. PacBell staffers wired the media center, linked all network TV satellite trucks and worked 24-hour shifts to make sure the news got out.

The teamwork paid off. PBN caught a few bouquets tossed by the media. "They were responsive, reachable and did an extremely good job in helping us get access," says Dan Rosenheim, the city editor who co-captained the print pool. "You'd always love to have a two, hour interview with the Man himself but given the realities of the situation..." Pete Leabo, the Associated Press photo boss in San Francisco who was also a pool co-captain, credits the public relations consultancy with "being very responsive." Leabo appreciated that PBN "relied very heavily on our input in helping us decide which areas would yield the best image. In the past when outside PR firms have become involved [in a hard news story of global import], we're told 'this is a good picture' when we knew it might yield little more than a mug. At least they realized they didn't have technical photo knowledge."

Still, Leabo chafed at the "pre-established pool areas, a pen to give as many media representatives as possible a single shot at Gorbachev." His gripe is that it handcuffs an international wire service so "the best stuff might not be available to all people throughout the world. It makes sense for the AP to have a single representative in a tight (photo) pool and be granted virtually unrestricted access."

Visit Was a Crash Course in International Relations

Yet Necarsulmer says if the assignment was exciting and exhausting, it was also an education, a crash course in international media relations. Some valuable lessons learned: Have printed transcripts of all speeches ready an hour before they are delivered. Don't cave in when pushy members of the White House press corps think they're above the ground rules and demand special pampering. Never anchor yourself to a desk or a phone in a media center- be where the action is. (PBN rented a recreational vehicle as its rolling office to stay abreast of the action). Be sure that any volunteers who are pressed into action are professional communicators and not just wannabees looking for a thrill.

On the other hand, PBN's instincts and expertise allowed it to sidestep problems a less experienced PR consultancy might have had. For instance, all press advisories and itineraries were clearly written with spare prose, all the facts and zero hype; the tone was authoritative yet helpful. No annoying high-tech computer graphics, with multi-typefaces and fonts, were used. All rosters included a variety of ways and numbers for reaching each key person-direct phone, home, car, cellular, fax, pager.

Today, six months later, Necarsulmer is still basking in the afterglow. "Unlike other mega events we've done where you go, go, go and you crash, this time there was no crash. The adrenaline kept pumping." He claims it was the highlight of his professional career and personally rewarding to boot. After the morning tea with Reagan and Gorbachev, Necarsulmer was part of a "supertight pool" who got a 10-minute photo opp with the two world leaders. Sid Rogich of the White House got him in a picture. Did Gorbachev know who he was? "I don't know," admits Necarsulmer. "I'd like to assume he did. What struck me was that he took the time to pose and touch and be jovial at a time when a new world was breaking out over Eastern Europe and he was facing party difficulties back home."

To be sure, the PBN Company will be reaping dividends from its investment for some time. It has already been retained by American International Corp. of Irvine, Calif. to handle the opening of a 430-room Radisson Hotel and a 170-suite business center in Moscow next spring. Two other travel and tourism industry clients have signed on. And Necarsulmer claims he definitely will be opening an office in the Soviet capital city in 1991.

But with any gain comes pain. Not only did the PBN Company throw its entire organization into the project free of charge, it ran up $62,000 in out-of-pocket expenses, monies it took just to get the job done. Some of San Francisco's more prominent people and corporate citizens pledged to raise the cash to repay the consultancy in full. That was in June. As this is written, insiders say Necarsulmer and company haven't seen a nickel.

Chris Barnett is a free-lance writer specializing in marketing and communication, San Francisco, Calif.
COPYRIGHT 1991 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; public relations
Author:Barnett, Chris
Publication:Communication World
Date:Jan 1, 1991
Previous Article:International spotlight.
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