When is PR not really PR?

My friend Dennis Erokan and his wife Lori have been reading these posts, and I really appreciate his comments.  Dennis published BAM, the music magazine of Northern California (and eventually Southern California) when we really were the music scene and very ambitiously held the Bammies every year which was a really entertaining version of the Grammies, and many great performers showed up.  At the last one I saw even Tim Russert was there.

So Dennis has his blog and website (placemakinggroup.com), and I suggest you check it out if you really want to learn to do this thing properly.  I never did and I think it is too late to start now.

I learned early with Roller Derby that you had to reach a target audience for whatever it is that you are doing.  And what you are sending out had better be of interest to that audience.  We found out early on that it was a waste to send information to the sports editors (on the whole) as they had a holier-than-thou reaction to anything to do with Roller Derby (with the exception of the Twiggy stunt I referred to in the earlier blog).  So we would try and get features on our skaters, especially when going into a city for the first time.   And sometimes we even fudged a bit:  a jammer would find out that he or she was born near Topeka, Kansas, when in reality he came from Saskatchewan (they talk the same)

In the Bay Area, we actually were quite friendly with the sports editors of the San Francisco Chronicle and the Oakland Tribune, and they would list our schedules and game results.  In fact, the Oakland Tribune suggested to Frank Deford when he came to Oakland to do a story for Sports Illustrated on the teams of Oakland that he see us, and he did and wrote a long and wonderful piece on Roller Derby for Sports Illustrated (15 pages!) which became the basis of his book, “Five Strides on the Banked Track”.  And later on he suggested to Wayne Valley, the then majority owner of the Oakland Raiders, that they have me head the group of American Football League owners who wanted to by the Oakland Seals National Hockey League team (NHL turned us down, gave it to Charlie Finley, it folded within two years).

We would continually contact the media, offer them tickets for our games even though we knew the staffers or pressmen would come and never ask them for anything.  Each year when we had our Championship Playoffs and sold out the Oakland Coliseum Arena and the Cow Palace (almost 30.000 in total), we would have dinner in each facility and send gold tickets to the media.  They were impressed, and even if they did not give us press then, we know we could get something later.

Press releases were often written in the Herb Michelson style, which I described earlier, so we knew that they had a better chance of getting read.  Sometimes we would put strange headlines on them so they wouldn’t get thrown away. One thing I insisted on; in all press releases would have complete game information, including ticket sale locations, phone numbers, etc.  I had one woman who had handled press for Macy’s who argued with me that ticket information shouldn’t be in a release as they would just delete it.  I told her that was the decision of the publication and not hers, and more often than not when we would get copies of the articles from the bureau we hired (no computers, no google). All the information would be in because the editors were to lazy to take it out and maybe they had more space to fill that day.  (Seltzer principle:  put everything in, let others decide what not to use)

Mere mentions on media are not sufficient PR, although often the PR agencies would try to convince their clients that they are.  I always insisted with Roller Derby or the Ticket Companies, that if we were providing people for interviews or tickets for giveaway, all the information for the game, etc be given on the air.  And it is so necessary to prepare the people who you are sending on the interviews.  They are often so anxious to answer the questions and talk about themselves that they forget why they are there.  I would write down what they must say and they shouldn’t bother to come back if they didn’t.  Ann Calvello and Joan Weston were the worst initially because they were so interesting to the interviewer and they were able to talk about everything (except the game!);  eventually both could do these things in their sleep and really promote.  And we always volunteered skaters for PBS auctions, for daytime shows on local TV, etc.  I never cared what question I was asked, I would say “Yes, Jim and don’t forget our big game this Saturday”……..

When we were in the ticket business (BASS, Ticketmaster) we actually had even more leverage.  We had information we could pass on to the media;  for the more influential ones we would get tickets for them even after the promoters or teams had given them their limit (we paid for them of course).  We never asked them to help us all the time, but when we really needed a favor, we would go to the media and most times they would cooperate.  Of course if they didn’t, extra tickets were harder to come by.  We never abused the relationships as they can get upset with you if you are constantly pestering them and asking for coverage.

What Dennis can really help anyone who wants to learn effective PR is what to send out and to whom.  Often PR people try to flatter executives  in companies who have hired them by writing profiles on them and sending them out.  Frankly who cares?  If it doesn’t sell widgets or doesn’t create goodwill or be interesting enough to be utilized, they are having smoke blown up etc.

I used guerilla marketing before I even knew what it was.  When we would send our advance man out ahead of our tour to try to stir up media coverage (remember, 95% of our ticket sales came as a result of our television program), I would give him a hundred dollars, authorize him for ticket giveaways, interviews, personal appearances, etc, but told him if he spent the hundred dollars at the radio station, he would be fired (well, not literally…..sometimes we could get amazing packages that not only involved interviews, but match races between the disc jockeys which they would promote endlessly).  And we expected our local TV outlet who had our show on to support us.   Often times, we would offer them 10% of our gate if they turned the station over to us and ran an agreed upon amount of television spots; believe me, it worked.  We tried never to turn anything down that would help.

We never spent any money on a radio station anywhere unless they agreed to give us a number of free promotional spots and me.  We were rarely disappointed.

To summarize, write well (and funny when you can), keep media happy,  push them as hard as you can (you can always back off) and the more you are involved and know your business, even if you hire an agency, you determine what goes out and to whom and what you want and don’t blame someone else for lack of results.

I think I have told you almost all my secrets, except the really important ones.

Jerry Seltzer and his Roller Derby families

One of the elements that has remained constant in the old Roller Derby (1935-1973) to the new Roller Derby (2001 to present) is family.

Jerry Seltzer and Ann Calvello

I received a Father’s day message on Facebook from Michael J. Swassing thanking me for being the father figure for the up to 30,000 derby girls in 541 leagues in 15 countries.  He stated that Derby was the only non-dysfunctional family that most of the members have.  I have never met Michael,  who is a successful business man in Seattle and works with the Rat City (nice name, huh?) Rollers of that area.  In terms of attendance, they are the most successful Roller Girls league, drawing some 7000 fans to their last match at Key Arena.

I only was able to see Roller Derby sporadically while growing up, as it was mainly in the Midwest, South and East and I lived in Portland.  But when I did get to attend in Los Angeles a number of the skaters and personnel befriended and took care of me and my sister.  Buddy and Bobbie Atkinson said they changed my diapers, but I wasn’t that young. And all of the people associated with the Derby were so close with each other as they lived together and traveled together.  There was big Sid Cohen from Chicago, a 6 foot four 250 pounder who had originally been with the Mob in Chicago and had been sent in to the Coliseum in Chicago to plant a bomb because my Dad wouldn’t work with the mob.  He became a close friend of my Dad and worked with him for years before going to work with the Ice Follies (see, Al Capone could have had a whole different life).

I have a wonderful photo of Sid and me at a beach (Santa Monica?);  I was about five, skinny, worried looking and Sid in a shirt and tie walking along side me carrying my little bucket and shovel…I loved Sid and all the others with Derby.

As I became an adult and the official head of the Derby (1958-1959), my own family developed around me.  First there was Peggy Ahern, who was a “leftover” from the previous regime.  Peggy had been married to a skater and then referee and had become a discount ticket exchanger.  The way Roller Derby was promoted before television was distributing hundreds of thousands of discount tickets in the various cities, usually sponsored by some local market, brewery, etc.  They would offer 50 cents to $1 off the price of the tickets and had to be exchanged at the venue.  It was not unusual for the ticket statements for the games to show up to 95% discount tickets.  One of the first things I did when I took over Roller Derby was to reduce the price of all tickets by 50 cents (to $1, $2, and $3) and declare all discounts void.  I knew that television would bring the fans, and the unit managers would no longer be able to pocket the revenue from the tickets that had put in for discounts every night.

So Peggy became my box office manager, and it was a run that lasted until the 80’s with BASS Tickets.  We learned together.  Peggy had a huge Cadillac (I forget why) and her car trunk became our traveling box office.  Remember, no computers, no outlets, etc.  We did take phone reservations for the games, but credit cards were not used so people had to pick up their tickets at the box office the nights of the games.  Hal Janowitz was a great skater who when he gave up skating ran the various box offices for us at the games, and when we went on the road later he was the road manager and settled the box offices for us and tried to keep the skaters in line (lots of luck, Hal).

Sunnie Senne was a fan who came to the games at Richmond, and one night when we were short of people to help Peggy, I announced at the game did anyone want to work for the Bay Bombers and Sunnie, who was certainly a character, came down and stayed with us for years.  Eventually all of Peggy’s daughters, Lorraine,  Maggie, and Denise worked for us in some capacity.

Harold Silen, the attorney who incorporated the company (Bay Promotions, Inc) for me, became my friend and partner over the next 50 years.  Hal represented many of the North Beach clubs and also Willie McCovey and Willie Mays of the Giants.  Of all of us, he was the class act.

When I started the one nighters around Northern California (Sunday night at Kezar Pavilion in SF where we would televise and videotape for elsewhere in the country), we had pretty well set up our ticket sales.  We had our reservation numbers on our penalty boxes and made sure the cameras hit them.  On Mondays we skated in San Jose, one mid week date either a Stockton, Santa Rosa, Sacramento or other, Friday at the Richmond Auditorium, and Saturday at the Oakland Auditorium.  Of course, the schedule would vary depending on the date availability.  We sold dates to fairs, organizations, etc.  And one to the Navy.  We  skated on the hangar deck (the first deck below) on the USS Ranger, and the crew enjoyed it immensely, and I even got to go out on the carrier later on a training cruise.  We even donated a game and skated at San Quentin.

We sold one date to the 20-30 club in Vallejo (I think you could join at 20 but could stay in this civic organization no later then 30), and the young man was the head of it became enamored of Peggy.  He insisted on helping her with everything she was doing and showed up at a number of games afterwards.   Peggy is quite statuesque and I know that she had a number of her own fans.

Peggy and Sunnie took the phone reservations (her favorite call:  ” is this where you pick your seats on the phone?”), and had help from George “Run Run” Jones’ wife who sometimes work in the box office.  George went on the become  the white haired guy who ran on the field with the towels and liquids for the Oakland Raiders and wore all of Super Bowl rings.  He died recently.

Now that brings us to Jo Downs.  Jo had worked for my father back east and was a wonderful bookkeeper….her only problem, she drank at night.  Peggy had to pick her up each morning as she didn’t drive and Peggy never knew what she would find.  Jo helped me with scheduling and terrified everyone with her demeanor….she was a great buffer for me.

Ticket sales were really bizarre…..they were only on the day of the game and by phone.  Hal Janowitz would get to San Jose or wherever the day of the game at 10 am and sell the tickets until game time when we would add 1 or two additional personnel, depending on our crowd expectations.  The Roller Derby games were 8 periods, 4 each half with the women and men alternation.  In the fourth period we would announce that tickets were on sale for the next game and people would flock to the box office and and stand in line for the entire fourth period and sometimes miss the start of the second half.   I think Peggy suggested that since standing in line for tickets is what people wanted to do, why didn’t we just cancel the games and just sell tickets.   Sounded like a great idea to me.

Derby Girls Jumping. Image from the Library of Congress, Reproduction No. LC-USZ62-133382

We all did so many things together because Roller Derby was all of our lives.  There was the expected separation between the skaters and the front office, but we were a very small organization and even when the entire International Roller Derby League was touring the country (and Canada) in major arenas from Madison Square Garden to Maple Leaf Gardens, and the Oakland Coliseum Arena to the Mobile Auditorium, it all came from our small group with additions for shipping our tapes and writing and sending out our advance press releases and advertising to all the cities we were playing.  I supervised all of that.  In addition, we would schedule an hour weekly at KTVU channel 2 in Oakland and Walt Harris would cut 1 minute and 30 second spots for distribution to the television stations in the cities we would be playing.  We could ofter cut up to 45 (!) spots in an hour, using an endless loop of skating with info copy on the screen.  I guess it worked.

Hal and I and Peggy went on to start BASS tickets, northern California’s computerized ticket agency.  And when we joined with the Ticketmaster cities everyone wanted to know how BASS operated, and Peggy explained how to run a ticket company to most of them.  And I used my guerilla marketing from Roller Derby to help make Ticketmaster the dominant force in the industry.

Both Jo Downs and Sunnie have passed away;  Peggy and her daughter Lorraine live here in  Sonoma, Hal Silen and I are still involved in projects, and Hal Janowitz is enjoying life in Alameda, California.  When I see him, I ask him if he is ready to go out on the road again.