How do PR practitioners get results for their clients? By knowing what they do, how they do it, why it’s important – bottom line: knowing how to tell their stories. This means more than having a general understanding of their industries. ‘Manufacturing,’ ‘packaging’ and ‘shipping’ are all familiar words, conjuring up vague images of bustling machine shops, tractor trailers or merchandise containers. But a successful enterprise is a usually a highly specialized endeavor, involving numerous systems and processes and an extraordinary level of know-how.
If we’re good at our jobs, we can write about our clients’ businesses with enough detail to give reporters, investors and customers the big picture and drive interest. Still, there is no substitute for donning ear plugs and safety glasses and actually walking across our client’s factory floor, seeing not just what they do, but how. We come away with a level of knowledge that is invaluable – and helps us communicate more effectively. Getting in the weeds is one of the most fascinating parts of the job and makes me and my co-workers experts in industries we never would have expected when getting that communications, journalism or business degree.
Case in point: I recently found myself some 600 feet below the prairie lands of southern Illinois in an active coal mine. The New Era Mine is operated by The American Coal Company, which is an independent operating subsidiary of our client Murray Energy Corporation.
As I found, if you think you know what coal mining involves because you have a general idea of what coal mining is, you are missing much of the story.
One of the first things I noticed about the mine was its size – not that I could see very much of it at one time because it was pretty dark. But after descending the mine shaft with my guides, we hopped into small open-top vehicle and drove, underground, for three miles to get to what is called the working face – the area where the coal is being mined.
The New Era Mine is a longwall mine, which is a method of extracting coal using a shearer that moves along the face of the coal seam. The shearer extracts about four tons of coal every 10 feet – and the longwall itself stretched about 1500 feet – and as it moves further into the seam a 1500-foot row of hydraulic roof supports moves along behind it. A large chain-driven conveyor moves the freshly mined coal to a belt conveyor system which takes it three miles back to the surface to a cleaning and load-out facility.
All of this is machinery is run by a huge power supply console – practically an electrical substation, except it’s portable – with computers to track speed, hydraulic pressure and voltage. Miners all wear electronic gas detectors to monitor for methane and carbon monoxide (the canaries are long a thing of the past), while a computerized ventilation system ensures fresh air is pumped through the miles and miles of passages where miners work. Technology is actually a huge part of a modern coal mine, allowing more production with fewer miners, and making mines safer than ever before.
Forgive me if these short paragraphs make it difficult to picture what a coal mine actually looks like; really, you’d have to see it. But that’s the point. Now that I’ve seen a coal mine firsthand, I understand it – and, equally important, I can talk about it intelligently (and passionately) with reporters, legislative aides, and other stakeholders, people whose understanding of coal mining is important to my client’s business.
Seeing it up close and personal is the best way to get what we need to tell a story – and that’s the main reason companies hire PR firms in the first place.