The Colonel and Me, An Early Introduction to Public Relations

Darrell Hammond’s weird caricature of Colonel Harland Sanders for KFC’s new TV commercial campaign brings back memories for me every time I see it. Suffice it to say, it’s not a very accurate representation of the real man, who was actually just as colorful, but in very different ways.

In a strange way, the real Colonel Sanders introduced me to my future career. You see, I belonged to a Boy Scout troop in Louisville Kentucky, which happened to be based at the Baptist Church the Colonel attended. In 1973, we were raising money to attend the national Boy Scout Jamboree, when mysteriously all of our fundraising goals were instantly met and even exceeded. Suddenly, we had the money to rent a nice bus and stay at a nice hotel en route to the big event at Moraine State Park in Pennsylvania, with stops along the way to see the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.

One day as we were policing our campsite at the Jamboree, a gaggle of news media appeared with cameras and microphones. We had no idea what was going on. Shortly after the cameras were in place, the elderly Colonel Sanders hobbled into our campsite on an ornate walking stick, wearing his famous white suit and bolo tie. It was like he had walked off the side of one of his famous buckets of chicken. We recognized him instantly, of course.

Col. Sanders sat with us on a log around the campfire and talked a bit. I asked him a question about the beautiful walking cane he carried and he said it had been hand-carved by a coal miner he knew in Kentucky and he clearly treasured it. There were a bunch of group photos taken, he shook our hands and then he left, the cameras in tow. We were all wondering what happened, but apparently the Colonel had paid for all of us to attend the Jamboree. Up until then, he was our anonymous benefactor. I had been part of a staged PR/marketing event without even realizing. (Nobody asked for any release forms, this was 1973).

Later, Danny Kaye addressed the gathered crowd of 28,000 plus Boy Scouts from around the USA to tell us about St Jude’s Children’s Medical Center he had founded eleven years before, which was also just as memorable.

I can’t say that my role in this little publicity stunt later influenced my career in PR, but it certainly didn’t hurt. I later did some PR work for Chick-fil-A and it made me wonder how many people had actually shaken hands with both Colonel Harland Sanders and Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-fil-A, but I bet it puts me in pretty select fried chicken company.

It’s hard to imagine what the real Colonel Sanders would make of Darrell Hammond’s impersonation, but he would like the messaging about the food. He was obsessed with his recipes and even entered into a nasty legal fight when KFC changed the recipe for his gravy, because it was too complicated for mass production. Another notable point about Colonel Sanders is that he didn’t become a multi-millionaire until after age 65, so there’s still hope for a lot of us!