Imagine you're one of the key communications people at a company that's about to make one of its biggest news announcements ever. Then, throw in a bout with strep throat less than a week before the press conference.
Losing one's voice is the ultimate nightmare for a communications pro, but it was a stark reality for Laurie Schalow, senior director of PR at KFC, which late last month was about to announce it was switching from cooking oil containing unhealthy trans fats to a healthier soybean oil.
"It was your typical pre-launch week, working 14- to 16-hour days and trying to get everything done," Schalow says. "I lost my voice the Tuesday before, so the next three days were a little sketchy. By the day of the announcement (Monday, October 30), my voice was slightly hoarse, but it was fine."
But concerns over her loss of voice paled in comparison to her worries about whether reporters would come to a press conference.
"I was most nervous about doing a press conference because they don't do them anymore," she says. "Reporters would rather have things e-mailed to them. It's really hard to get people away from their desks and come to a meeting."
Her fears were unfounded, however. She says there were eight or nine camera crews, and another 20 to 25 print and wire reporters. "It was a full house," Schalow says.
As it turned out, Schalow's true challenge was keeping the news a secret. Reporters are less likely to show up to a news conference if they have the news beforehand, she says.
So Schalow opted to put out a media advisory the Thursday before. All that did, however, was cause reporters to start guessing about what the announcement would be, which resulted in some erroneous stories getting printed.
"So instead of getting ready for the conference, we spent two days putting out fires and squelching rumors," she recalls.
On announcement day, Schalow woke up every hour starting at 3am checking to see if the day's edition of USA Today, where KFC broke the story, had arrived. The press conference, held at Cooking By the Book in Manhattan, was followed by interviews with KFC's president with a number of print, radio, and TV journalists.
The effort resulted in a "double PR trifecta," she says. The announcement was covered on all the major morning and evening news shows. Schalow says those are the types of days she lives for. "It was fast and furious, but a PR pro's dream," she says.
Linda Weinberg, SVP at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, worked closely with Schalow on the project. Not only did they work on nearly every aspect together, she notes, but they also e-mailed each other at all hours. "When the project was over, I [wondered what I was] going to do without my midnight e-mail buddy," Weinberg says jokingly.
Weinberg describes Schalow's approach as very thorough, not leaving much room for any unexpected bumps in the road.
"Laurie always looks at a challenge from every angle," Weinberg says. "We'd routinely tear things apart and put them back together. We'd look at all the pros and cons, not just knee-jerk and say let's do this because we can. Everything was thoroughly assessed and we did that together. We didn't always agree, but that's good."
Weinberg also has great respect for the way Schalow balances her home life and work schedule.
"We both have two kids, we both go home and have dinner with our families, and at 9pm, when the kids are in bed, we're back online working," Weinberg says. "For me, it was great to have a very high-powered professional who was juggling all of those demands and still doing the job right."
Senior director of PR, KFC
National spokesperson, Taco Bell Corp.