The day Elvis died

Certain stories set an entire newsroom buzzing, and word of the death of Elvis Presley, 40 years ago today, spread like wildfire throughout the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. I had worked there for eight months, still getting used to the rhythms and quirks of the city’s lesser known newspaper. I stood far outside the inner circle of managing editors, city editors, feature editors and others who made decisions about what was and was not newsworthy. That, incidentally, would remain true for the entire, five-year tenure.

Curiosity grew quickly about the details surrounding Presley’s death, but that wasn’t what had everyone talking. Instead, rumors spread quickly that the G-D brain trust wanted to relegate the story inside, probably with the obits.

I was 27 at the time, and Elvis had been part of my life for 21 years. I had family near Memphis, and I had visited Graceland several times as a kid. I stood outside the gaudy gate at Graceland as the Elvis mafia distributed autographed pictures of the King.

As a 6-year-old, I felt torn between my mom and dad. Mom, being a Southerner, wanted to watch Elvis’s 1956 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Dad found him crude, but he told me I could make up my own mind about whether to watch. The night of Elvis’s performance, I split the difference, standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, fully committed to neither my dad, smoking in the kitchen, nor my mom, seated by the TV. I loved Elvis’s performance, though. Within a year, my dad had died of a heart attack. I was devastated, of course, but free of this little bit of tension between my parents.

Like most people my age, by the time Elvis died, I saw him more as kitsch than King. The jumpsuits, excessive weight, botched lyrics, and endless cover songs made him a caricature of his former self. I celebrated his comeback in 1968, but nine years later, the magic had disappeared.

Even so, my fellow reporters and I knew that keeping Elvis off the front page would be a mistake. He, Frank Sinatra and the Beatles changed the landscape of popular music in the 20th century. His legion of fans would never understand. In the end, the Globe-Democrat decision makers relented, and Elvis got his rightful place on Page One.

I’ve come to understand just how much a person’s judgment is shaped by when he or she comes of age. When Elvis died, he had been on the scene a bit more than 20 years, but he wasn’t part of the fabric of the lives of the Globe’s senior management, just as Taylor Swift is not part of the fabric of mine. I have no understanding of the passion her fans have for her, so I have a bit more insight into how the Globe editors underestimated the importance of Elvis’s death. Like me now, they were just doing the best they could.

A postscript: About a month later, Bing Crosby died. His front-page obituary was never in doubt.

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An old warhorse dishes on the PR industry

I worked eight years for Fleishman-Hillard, one of the world’s premier public relations agencies. During that time, I often thought we ran the world, and I’m being only slightly facetious. On any given day, those capable of digging behind the headlines often would find that F-H played a role. We drove a wide array of issues, from fighting increased beer taxes to saving manatees, from speaking out for riverboat gambling to urging America to “change your clock, change your batteries” (smoke detector batteries, that is). Fleishman-Hillard provided both the brains and the muscle to drive success for a wide variety of clients.

Joe Finnigan’s memoir, Feisty: Chronicles & Confessions of an Old PR Warhorse, talks about the rise of Fleishman-Hillard from an influential player in St. Louis to an international public relations power with 80 offices worldwide, 2,600 employees, and annual billings of more than a half billion dollars. The book, however, primarily tells about Joe’s successes and setbacks and the personal and professional lessons he learned during 35 years in the PR business.

Joe played a huge role in the growth of Fleishman-Hillard. As a major cultivator and curator of the Anheuser-Busch account, he helped Budweiser and the company’s other brands win the beer wars of the 1970s. Joe’s systematic, strategic takedowns of the company’s major competitors, Schlitz and Miller, showed that, if necessary, public relations can be a blood sport.

At the same time, Joe demonstrates how much working in public relations can be like walking a high wire without a net. Capricious clients can love you one day and eat you for breakfast the next. PR pros also can serve as convenient fall guys, as Joe learned after one, fairly innocuous misstep with Anheuser-Busch.

Joe is stunningly honest about his clients and brutally honest about himself. He discusses his struggles with alcohol, his marital difficulties, his long estrangement from his children (since resolved), and his quest for the World War II soldier-father he never knew.

Feisty is a must read for anyone who wants back stories about how headlines are made, issues are won, and quirky personalities can shape our world. Go here to buy the hard copy of Joe’s book or here for the Kindle edition.

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A review: Bitter Brew

Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America's Kings of BeerBitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer by William Knoedelseder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

William Knoedelseder’s book captures the larger-than-life story of five generations of a family who piloted America’s premier brewing company through the Civil War, Prohibition, two world wars, and a developing global market that ultimately proved to be too great a match for them. It’s an excellent read.

Like the Kennedys, the Busches have had more than their share of success, failure and outright tragedy. As a St. Louisan who grew up two blocks from “the brewery,” I’ve always been fascinated by them. As a one-time employee of Fleishman-Hillard, the PR firm that represented Anheuser-Busch for decades, I had the opportunity to meet and occasionally work with several of the family members. The ones I knew seemed driven to excellence. Most of us would say they lived extravagantly, but then again, they could afford it, and they never squandered their wealth.

The Busches had several ugly divorces, and as the book chronicles, they were involved in some notorious slayings that would have resulted in lengthy prison sentences for those less well-connected than they were.

This family produced five generations of CEOs who led their company to the top of their industry and kept it there for more than 100 years. The last of them, August IV, presided over the fall of the company to InBev, the Belgian brewing conglomerate. You’ll learn from the book of his many shortcomings, but to pin the fall only on him would be a mistake. He faced a cauldron of internal and external forces that the company had failed to evaluate fully. As a result, it couldn’t respond quickly or strongly enough to the unrelenting globalization of the brewing industry. In the Darwinian global beer business, it became prey instead of predator.

Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer is part business history and part prime-time soap opera. I, for one, couldn’t put it down.

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