Friday, July 13, 2007

Meet My Assistant, The Prince

"Your summer intern is Prince Michael of Greece - isn't that great?!"

Being the PR guy for a billionaire CEO in the tech biz, I was used to weird things happening. We'd asked for an intern. The CEO got back saying a friend's son would be taking the job. I should've known the "friend" would be somebody like HRH King Constantine.

"Yessir, it's wonderful," I mumbled.

I had reservations. Not that I was a foe of monarchies or looked down on royal siblings as lazy profligates who lived off the public coffer. In fact, I would come to like the Prince. He was a regular guy. Hungover on his first day in the office, The Prince slept through my tedious seminar on telecom networks. Afterward, on slow days, we'd lock the door to my office and play hoops with a tennis ball and a trash can or toss cigarettes in the air and try to catch them in our lips. It wasn't that I feared the prospect of hefting a yards-long silken train as I trailed humbly behind The Prince. What worried me was the impact on my "credibility" with the press, or as I put it to my boss:

"So, uh. . .when a reporter drops by I say "Hi, I'm Jim Crawford, PR Manager, and this is my assistant, the Prince of Greece?' "

Two points here. First, a PR person's legitimacy with the media is his/her most important asset. Second, some executives don't give a fig whether their actions damage your reputation. This lesson was driven home to me later in life.

Flash forward 10 years. 1995. I'm Director of PR for a large, multinational telecom firm. Word comes down that our Chairman, Bart Bungler, will in one hour tell the Board he plans to plunk $1 billion in a well-known media company owned by a magnate we shall here name Rugbert Mudcrop. I'm thinking, "Wow, we have a billion dollars to toss around like that?" when in pops my boss, whom we'll call Fran Ovary.

"We need to hold a press conference on this deal two hours from now," she squeaks.

"Sure. Anybody know why we're giving $1 billion to Mudrock?"

"It's 'Mudcrop,' and 'No!' Leave the details to me. You start calling the press!"

We'll condense the part where the Board tells the Chairman his idea is silly and Ms. Ovary scurries back with orders not to call any media yet. . .an hour after I've done so, and 30 minutes before the press conference is to commence. [At the last minute the Chairman bludgeoned the other Board members into line and the "investment" was okayed. Never mind that no one -- then or now -- could figure what we were getting for our billion bucks. We were "converging the worlds of telecom and media." Whee!]

Reporters and camera crews pile in to our studio. Lights flash. Chairmen shake hands and flash toothy grins. After an hour they all file out, and we PR folk take to the phones to answer the million questions other journalists have about this billion dollar deal in need of a reason. Around 5:30pm I was about to catch my breath and relax when the call came in from Newsweek.

"Is it true that convicted felon Michael ________ brokered this deal for Bungler and Mudcrop?"

Half a minute later I'm on the phone with Bart Bungler, who denies the allegation. That satisfies Newsweek, but not Business Week, which calls the next day and gets the same line from me. Nevertheless, within a month's time the true story emerges. Fresh from stamping license plates in the federal pen, the world's most infamous corporate raider had indeed hosted the Bungler-Mudcrop meeting on his private jet, violating a court injunction on involvement in deal-making.

Bungler was fired eventually, which was a lucky break. His successor's in jail for life now, for similar & worse transgressions.

Mudrock's richer than ever.

Nobody remembers the deal.

The billion dollars? Poof!

I survived, though I still blush whenever I bump into the guy from Business Week.

What I learned: There's a good reason why, every few decades or so, the masses assemble The Mighty and line them up against a wall.

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