It was the spring of 1987 and I was about two years into my PR career, having transitioned from working as an investigative political news producer at Channel 2 News in Chicago (CBS-TV News).
I was working my way up the totem pole at Janet Diederichs and Associates, a mid-sized Chicago PR agency, and was given the opportunity to pitch my first account, The W. Clement Stone Foundation. W. Clement Stone was the founder of the Combined Insurance Company, which later became the Aon Corporation.
I developed a plan, pitched the work, and beat out three of the largest agencies for the project. The objective was to raise awareness and nominations for Stone’s “Endow a Dream Award” – the recipient would receive $100,000 to donate to any charity – even their own.
We created an 800 phone line to expedite submissions for the award. And despite the large stature of W. Clement Stone in Chicago, I knew his name would not hold marquee status with journalists in New York and Los Angeles. So, we did some research and found that Stone, by virtue of his giving away $400 million to charity at that point, was the greatest living philanthropist. Only Rockefeller had given away more money to charity over a lifetime.
We were able to use the title of greatest living philanthropist to good effect, arranging appearances on the Larry King Show, Phil Donahue Show, Today Show and interviews with Parade Magazine, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Associated Press and others. We increased nominations tenfold over the previous year, found our award recipient, and presented the award with President Ronald Reagan in the White House Oval Office.
After the award, I kept working with Mr. Stone, helping to promote his foundation.
While setting up a media tour of Los Angeles, I called Stone’s office to work out scheduling. When I told his assistant that I wanted Stone to appear on the Michael Jackson show on KABC radio, she asked if this was Michael Jackson, the singer. At first I thought she was joking, as it had been only a couple of years since “Thriller” was released and Jackson was the most famous entertainer in the world.
When I told her no, she said, “you know he calls over here to talk with Mr. Stone – he’s a big fan of Mr. Stone.”
I must admit that in retrospect, I was setting my sights to low, when I asked to her see if we could get a photo op with Jackson and Stone while we were in Los Angeles. She told me she would check.
A few days later, she called back and said that Jackson would love to get together, but over dinner. When I asked at what restaurant, she said it would be at Jackson’s home in Encino.
Now, when I worked at the CBS-TV News affiliate in Chicago, I had gotten used to being around famous people. My boss was a celebrity TV journalist in Chicago in his own right, and he would also interview celebrities coming through town, which allowed me to meet Meryl Streep, Paul Newman and Jimmy Carter. But this was different.
Stone and I traveled separately to LA, and I arrived first at Jackson’s home at 6 pm. Jackson was not there yet, and I was told by his assistant that he was at the studio working on the Thriller album sequel, “Bad.”
At no time in the run up to the dinner – or while at the house – did Stone know who Jackson was. His intent was merely to talk to someone who had read his books and wanted to discuss positive thinking. After about 30 minutes, Michael Jackson finally arrived.
He was very nice and enjoyable to talk with. Before dinner, he took us on a tour of the house, which included an arcade game room and his bedroom, which was interesting in that there were stuffed dolls on his bed, including the seven dwarfs.
We finally finished the house tour - which wasn’t what I would consider being extravagant by North Shore Chicago standards -- and sat down to dinner. Jackson had his private cook come out and serve us, and we spent the next two hours talking about Clement Stone’s philosophy on positive thinking. Jackson was particularly interested in Napoleon Hill and Thomas Edison.
After dinner, Michael took us on a tour of his backyard and then took us to a room above the garage behind the home, which was his dance studio. This is where he worked out all his dance routines – not sure this is where the moonwalk was perfected!
He had a polaroid camera and would take pictures of himself and his guests and post it on a bulletin board in the dance room. As we were guests, he had his assistant take one of us together and I assume it was up there for a number of years. If you look closely at the picture below, you can see Barbra Streisand, John Travolta, Fred Astaire and other celebrities who visited Jackson’s dance studio.
It was now about 10 pm and it was time to call it a night, so we headed out to say our goodbyes and drove back to the hotel.
Obviously, it was hard to sleep that night, still pumped over the dreamlike experience.
I kept working with Mr. Stone. In his true positive thinking, entrepreneurial style, he encouraged me to start my own PR practice, with him as my first client.