Monday, November 5, 2012

Pretzel logic: What PR pros can learn from an Amish woman

Posted by Greg Matusky
A great deal of what I know about PR, I learned from Auntie Anne. The pretzel queen. A former Amish woman turned entrepreneur, who, in the 1990s retained my firm to promote her burgeoning franchise empire of hand-rolled soft pretzel stores.

It wasn't an easy assignment, convincing someone who had been taught all of their life to avoid attention that she had to interview with Forbes magazine or do lunches with Inc. reporters. But if anything, Anne was a pragmatist who understood the value of her own story. And this was a great one.

Born to an Amish family, she chose not to enter the faith, married early, and struggled financially. While running a food stall at a local farmer's market, her husband mixed up a flour order for her pretzel recipe. The screw up resulted in the best pretzel she had ever tasted. Lines formed around the corner, and soon prospective franchisees were beating down her door to buy in. She called it an act of God. Me? Well, I too know the value of a good story, regardless of whether the intervention is devine.

Before Anne signed our contract, she made a request. She wanted to appear on Pat Robertson's "700 Club." I figured Pat would be eager to meet a fellow born-again Christian who owned a fast-growing company and had the money to help support his presidential aspirations.

A press release, phone call, and a few meetings, and an air date was set. Anne took the entire company, loaded them into a black cargo van, and drove to Virginia Beach. I met her on set, where she was remarkably composed for someone who had barely been out of Lancaster County, PA, let alone about to appear on national TV. We had prepared in advance, but she had one last thing to tell me. "I plan to testify today in front of everyone." I figured that was a good thing. Little did I know.

As cameras rolled, Robertson introduced Anne Beiler to the world -- this former Amish person whom God had blessed with a secret recipe for hand-rolled soft pretzels. She was delightful, recounting her years growing up on the farm, riding in buggies.

The conversation then turned to another time in Anne's life. Robertson termed it a time when the devil walked into her life. I drew forward in my chair. What could he possibly mean?

Anne took the cue, explaining an earlier life of adulterous sin, a multi-year affair with a pastor who later was brought up on fraud charges. My heart sunk. What was she talking about? How did Robertson know? How could this all unwind right before my eyes? The echoes of a long, emotional NOOOOO still linger somewhere deep inside me.

They both then segued, explaining how God took pity and saved her life from sin. If only He could now save this forsaken PR campaign. I had just been blindsided, and denied. The best story of a lifetime, snatched from my teeth. Who's going to buy pretzels from an auntie who dropped her panties?

Afterward, Anne was calm with the world. She thought it was marvelous. I was frantic. "It was a disaster," I screamed. "Where did all that come from?" She was perfectly honest. "I told Pat everything before the interview."

"Why?" I demanded. That's when cagey Anne Beiler taught me the PR lesson of a lifetime. The truth was only dangerous because it was a secret. By exposing it to the world, she nullified the threat. "Now, in the future, when we have thousands of stores, there will be nothing to hide. No risk. No damage. It will be old news. The secret is gone. We have nothing to fear."

Anne got in her van and headed back to Lancaster. Steadfast and fancy free. I went on to use her advice a million times over, popping dark client secrets to thwart some greater threat.
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