Having had the, uh, pleasure of working with just about every major national and international media outlet in existence, I fast outgrew the running down the halls and cheering routine that communications people do upon learning that their company is about to be the subject of a major feature story that will be seen or read by millions.
It’s great to be loved, of course, and for a few years in the late 80s and early 90s, the media world seemed to be madly in love with HD. I pushed their buttons hard with stuff they couldn’t turn down: drama, suddenly winning underdogs, great personalities, superb visuals and a whole lotta noise. We typically benefitted from the coverage – and it sold a lot of bikes -- but the massive egos and the “drop everything and do precisely what we tell you to do” attitudes common among producers and household name media personalities soon made any excitement I felt toward working with them wane. Truth is, I’d learned to loathe quite a lot of them. I’ll say it here: In general, media people are some the least-informed, careless, vain-glorious folks on the planet. Opps. I forgot. And lazy, too. The good ones are really good – too bad there are so few of them.
That said, I had more than a few highly memorable – and some ridiculously so -- experiences with the media world.
Here’s one I call, “Oh Shite. Mike Wallace is Coming.”
Totally out of the blue, one afternoon I get a call from CBS that goes something like this: “60 Minutes wants to do a piece on international trade and tariffs and we want to include Harley-Davidson.” In my mind, I’m instantly seeing a neat “Look how this small American company is beating back deep-pocketed Japanese competitors,” story, playing for millions on prime time, selling a buncha bikes the next day. But before I could give him the old, “We’d be happy to help any way we can,” line, the dude said, “Mike Wallace is bringing a crew to Milwaukee.”
Oh shite. If there’s a name in American media that can make a businessperson’s blood run colder than Mike Wallace, I’ve not heard it. That guy and his in-your-face, unrelenting toughness just plain scares people. That’s his M.O. Would you want him to interview you? One false word to Mike Wallace and he’s gonna skewer you, and smile while he’s flushing your career down the toilet. So I’m thinking, “Oh Lord, who am I gonna prop up in front of this buzzsaw and risk humiliating in front of millions?” Then it hit me: Tim Hoelter! Tim was our in-house counsel (extraordinaire), a quick on his feet expert on damn-near everything HD-related, possessed of a razor-sharp wit and great command of our language. Besides, who better to blow up than a lawyer?
So Tim and I prep. And we prep some more. And more. We use cameras and lights, grill Tim on the toughest questions and cruelest follow-ups we can muster, trying to be like Mike. Tim becomes even more of an expert on international trade than he already was, which isn’t to say he wasn’t a little nervous. But who could blame him?
The big day arrives. Mike Wallace strides in, wearing his brown trench-coat and an aura of irritability. “I’m hungry (helpful hint: media people are always hungry),” he says.” Can I get some food first?” Our cafeteria was already closed, but arrangements were made to whip up a burger for the general. He looked sorta funny eating the thing, wrapped in foil, as he bounded out onto the factory floor, looking for the best spot to do the interview. People working on the engine line recognized him immediately and he’d meet their eyes and nod, but he never stopped. His aura preceded him. A true master. I have to admit I was loving it.
I introduced him to Tim and, with precisely zero fanfare, the camera lights went hot and the interview began. Wallace is good that way – God help you if you need time to prepare. When he’s ready, you’d better be. He starts peppering Tim with questions, each a softball, rapidly followed by a beanball designed to catch him off guard and get him tongue-tied enough to say something he didn’t want to say that would be critical about the U.S. government’s trade policies, President Reagan, or our competitors. Each time, Tim batted it down and answered perfectly (and smiled while doing it) which only make Mike push harder. This went on for half an hour. Tim was outstanding (which was too bad, as you’ll learn) and you could just feel Wallace running out of ammo and patience.
Wallace jabbed his mic at the crew – interview over. The lights went dim. While the camera guys ran deeper into the plant to shoot footage of employees machining engines (“beautiful people building beautiful machines” as I always pitched it), Tim and I took Mike into the company store and tried to make nice-nice with him. He didn’t open up at all (which isn’t to say he was rude or cold). Nobody but employees are allowed in the company store, but we figured it was best to grease Mike’s palms a little and offer him up a chance to nab some HD goodies on the house. (Seriously, can you picture him in a black t-shirt saying, “On the 8th day, God Created Harley-Davidson”? Me, neither.) He filled a bag with loot, flashed a smile at the cashier who looked at him very uneasily when I told her, “It’s on the house,” and was gone to a waiting limo.
I had several conversations with the 60 Minutes producers over the next two weeks and heard nothing but bad news each time. They had a problem. And the problem was Tim. Who wants to watch Mike Wallace interviewing someone who’s not losing? They tried to edit the interview a hundred different ways, but it just wouldn’t work. There was no controversy and the hardball tactics failed. But I had a much bigger problem to worry about: Tim was very excited that he was going to be wrestling with the heavyweight champ on prime time (that would impress a lot of ladies, doncha think?) It seemed like everyone in Milwaukee knew about it (not that Tim told anyone…).
CBS called me one morning with the heartbreaking end. “We can’t make it work. We’re killing the story.”
I felt really horrible and it took a good while for me to gird my stomach enough to tell Tim that his network premier had been scuttled. (As a peace offering, I’d ordered a lifesize cardboard photo cutout of Tim with Wallace for him to display in his office, or put next to his bed, carry under his arms into bars, etc.). See what happens when you’re too good?
But I’d made myself a promise that day: No matter what, the next major media outlet that came to do a story on HD was going to get Hoelter as our on-air spokesperson/tour de force. And when Roger O’Neal (hands-down best person I’ve ever worked with) from NBC interviewed Tim for the Today Show on how HD protects its business from counterfeiters, Tim absolutely rocked. I’m not sure if he won himself any new lady friends from that, but let’s assume he did because I did a three-second cameo on that piece and the chicks haven’t stopped calling.