News article

The journalist, the gravedigger, and the man in the wheelchair – what real life can teach you about the power of stories

November 25, 1963. It was a cold, but clear day in Washington, DC for the funeral of President John F. Kennedy – killed in Dallas three days before.

Dignitaries from all over the world flew into the capital to pay their respects to the assassinated young US president. Hundreds of thousands of mourners lined the route, and more than 3,000 accredited journalists were in attendance, reporting on proceedings for newspapers and TV stations around the globe.

Many of the images of the day have seared themselves into the collective memory. The heart-breaking sight of three-year-old JFK Junior saluting his father’s coffin, the traumatised family walking behind the gun carriage at the head of the funeral cortege.

But, of all the thousands of articles and millions of words committed to newsprint, only one is still remembered – to the extent that, nearly 60 years later, it still features in journalism classes.

“Polly, could you please be here by eleven o’clock this morning?”

Jimmy Breslin was an Irish American journalist from New York. At the time of Kennedy’s funeral, he was 35. By the time he died at age 88, he had built a reputation for finding the stories behind the dry facts of the news.

If the Mayor of New York announced a new initiative, Breslin would go and talk to the people directly impacted by it. Not simple, lazy vox-pops, but real examples filled with character and life.

The streets of Brooklyn and The Bronx were Breslin’s usual beat, but for this article, he started at an old house in the Washington suburbs.

This was his opening paragraph for his piece for the New York Herald Tribune:

“Washington – Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m., in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast.

“His wife, Hettie, made bacon and eggs for him. Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting. It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living.

“Polly, could you please be here by eleven o’clock this morning?” Kawalchik asked. “I guess you know what it’s for.” Pollard did. He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.”

Frustratingly, the whole article is now hidden behind a GDPR warning, so not accessible for a UK audience. But, having read it in a book of Breslin’s collected articles, I can confirm it’s an intensely emotional piece that, unlike most newspaper articles, bears repeated reading and study.

The symbolism of it was immense. Pollard was a poor black man, earning $3 an hour doing a manual job. Earlier in the year, his black compatriots in the Deep South were being attacked by police dogs for doing nothing more than having the audacity to demonstrate the right to vote.

JFK had pledged to overturn such restrictions and had put forward voting rights legislation to do just that.

In a short article, Breslin had drilled down into the contradiction at the heart of the “land of the free” and captured the real tragedy of the assassination. He knew that by moving behind the headlines of a story or an issue you can illustrate the real impact, by using examples of real lives and real people.

In marketing land, we know them as “case studies”.

Showing real-life cases can be transformative

In my previous job at a well-known product provider, income protection was a key part of our product suite.

In the marketing team, we all knew the arguments for it. It protected your loved ones if you were unable to work. It provided a regular income to meet essentials because the government safety net was, by then, threadbare to the point of being non-existent.

We had real-life case studies of people who had benefited from having income protection in place when they fell ill, but our Head of Marketing looked at it from another angle.

It was the angle of a young married couple who had been involved in a horrific car crash who didn’t have income protection.

Neither of them were able to work for many months. Both were in jobs that couldn’t be done from home and that didn’t provide any income, so all they received was the statutory minimum.

They still had a mortgage and other overheads, and still had two young children to look after.

The husband spent months in hospital having his shattered pelvis rebuilt. The wife was able to go home sooner but was in a wheelchair for a couple of months.

We produced a whole suite of marketing material and press articles featuring the couple (with their agreement, I hasten to add). It was incredibly powerful stuff. The impact on audiences of advisers at sales seminars was extraordinary, especially when the husband himself spoke and took the audience through the obstacles he and his wife had faced.

That’s why case studies on adviser and planner websites can be so impactful.

The actual details of products and services offered may not sink in with prospective clients. If they are shopping around and looking at different sites, they may not see much differentiation from one to another.

But a short article or a video clip of someone explaining how you helped them can be the difference between them picking up the phone to you or moving onto the next Google search.

Jimmy Breslin went on to win awards and is one of the legendary journalists in US history. His mantra was “I keep my eyes and ears open, and mouth shut. I let people do the talking.”

Case studies let you allow your clients to do the talking.

If you want to find out how we can showcase your services more effectively or create social proof that “shows not tells”, please get in touch. Email [email protected] or call 0115 8965 300.

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