No Restraining Order Necessary

If there were a tabloid magazine that featured only news reporters, I would buy it.

Think US Weekly, but instead of celebrities and reality show stars, the glossy pages would be dedicated to news correspondents. I dream of a two-page photo spread that declares Andrea Mitchell, Lester Holt, Cokie Roberts, Charlie Rose and Jenna Wolfe are “just like us” with paparazzi shots of them grocery shopping, getting their cars washed, leaving the hair salon and crashing into waves at St. Bartz. A photo-spread like that with catchy little captions would keep me on the stair-climber at my gym for an extra 20 minutes at least.

I am a news junkie. I make no secret of it. My friends (in and out) of PR know it and my family has been notified. For instance, when Tim Russert unexpectedly passed away a few years ago, friends texted me to see if I was ok. He was my ultimate news correspondent crush.

Locally, I have the satisfaction of shared experiences with the news-orotti on social media, at community events, or when I have a client with a story worth telling.

For the national news anchors, writers and correspondents the opportunity to share the room comes only once in a while. So when Mike Leonard came to Indianapolis for the Meet the Media event on February 27th, I was there, front row center and prepared to stifle adolescent squeals of excitement.

Always the consummate professional, I think I pulled off acceptable behavior. What is even better, I walked away from Mike Leonard’s visit with key valuable professional lessons to put to use:

  1. Succeed by being who you are.
  2. Dare to discover what is in front of you.
  3. Tell the story people can feel.

Succeed by Being Who You Are

Mike Leonard is a father, husband, hockey player, college graduate, letter writer, former construction worker, and survivor of a few broken noses. He also happens to be an NBC Today Show correspondent, author, and newsroom veteran. Above all, he is a storyteller.

His tale includes a move to Arizona and a failed attempt to win a spot on a professional hockey team. The “no” from coaches somehow became a play-by-play gig for the team. There was casual mention of his hobby of making short vignettes with his super-8 camera and the tight budget his growing family lived on.

As he unfolded his story, he harked back to a moment at a college hockey game. Mike stood on the blue line for the pre-game ritual. He soaked in and savored the reverent music of Canadian and U.S. national anthems filling the rink. When he enthusiastically remarked to a teammate about how great that one single moment on the ice was his teammate responded with a shrug and a puzzled, “Huh?” At that moment, Mike realized he saw the experience of life through a different lens. That is who he is.

As he moved us away from his epiphany, the casual mention he made about his hobby and short super-8 vignettes took a lead role in Mike’s career evolution. The story unfolded and his short films led to a stint as an on-air sports anchor. He became known for his different perspective on sports stories, (creative license, some might even call them “quirky”). One of his quirky stories was seen by an NBC executive who happened to be in his market on vacation.

The story many of us know picks up from there and Mike Leonard has been a Today Show correspondent since 1980.

Every career move or life choice he faced, Mike succeeded by being who he really is. Two key examples:

  • A news director called him too ugly for TV (all those broken noses), yet he landed on air. What made him worth the gamble? Traditional news anchors shared scores and focused on the franchise player. Mike told the story of the basketball player who played so hard he went through multiple shoes in practice.
  • NBC sent him to the Golden Globes and he was the man on the red carpet with a chipped tooth and white socks peaking from his tuxedo. Flawed but human and Hollywood’s brightest stars embraced him. See the Golden Globes segment for yourself:

He is a person who sees things through a different lens, and he succeeds by being the person with that unique view.

Absorb What Is In Front of You

Mike shared the simple things that he absorbed over the course of his career.

He recalled a colleague who advised him, “Don’t compete, create.” A simple off the cuff remark that Mike could have ignored, shrugged off or pretended not to hear. Instead he absorbed it and put it to work.

Imagine that 2007 Golden Globes segment (go ahead, go back and view it if you have not already) if he had attempted to compete with or become a traditional entertainment reporter. It would have been another three minutes of the same sound bites everyone else had. “I am wearing Vintage Valentino.” “….honored to be nominated…” Blah blah blah. Boring boring and even more boring. Instead we get celebrities being (gasp) human and relatable.

As a storyteller, Mike showed us an everyday moment he recently chose to absorb: The postal carrier, James Hundley, who delivers to his son’s Chicago office. James is a daily fixture in the neighborhood where he delivers mail and he is known for his smile and belief to treat everyone you meet with dignity and respect.

Since Mike spends quality time at his son’s office, he knew James and one day he asked the smiling postal carrier a simple question, “Where are you originally from?” With James’ answer of “Mississippi” and some simple math (James is 63 years old), Mike knew James had lived through the turbulence and pain of the civil rights movement.

Suddenly, James, a man who many see every day as their ray of sunshine had a deeper story. Mike chose to absorb and tell James’ story.

Tell the Story People Can Feel

After you heed the advice to absorb what is right in front of you, put it to work for your clients or organization and tell the story people can feel. Delivering facts and figures is important for credibility, do not get me wrong. However, it is the emotional connection to a product or organization that moves awareness.

When it is time to tell the story about our clients, companies or organizations, is it the CEO’s body beyond a podium that tells the story people can feel? Can you tell the story with a chart about profits? Or is the story people can feel right in front of you in the form of someone who is in the trenches every day, working on or benefitting from the services or product you represent?

For instance, how often do we hear about test scores and graduation rates for public schools? Do they move us to want to improve education? Can we feel the needs of a student through those scores? Do we understand the challenges teachers face? Or do those facts, figures and statistics float over our heads? What if a story teller asked a few simple questions and walked with students and teachers at a school and brought you their daily trial and triumphs? Would you pay attention then? Relate to them and possibly even cheer for them?

Oh wait, that happened in Indianapolis (see Matthew Tully’s Indianapolis Star columns on Manual High School) and people were moved to act. A standing room only holiday concert, funds raised to assist students for a trip to New York City, and an understanding that test scores and statistics do not tell the whole story were all achieved. Tully told the story people could feel.

My story at Meet the Media ends there. I left the event with my news junkie fix met and without cause for a restraining order for stalking a national news correspondent. I also walked away with a few key lessons on how to accomplish the goals and objectives for my clients.

Vanessa Stiles, APR is a PRSA member, business owner, PR professional and self-affirmed news junkie. She is grateful for the hard work of PRSA volunteers to organize Meet the Media events throughout the year. It is her respect for those individuals that restrained her from taking a photo with Mike Leonard and posting it on social media with a caption that read, “Can I get a ‘woot’ for NBC’s Mike Leonard?!” You can follow her on Twitter @VictorySunPR.