PRTC has received a fair share of media attention in recent years. CEO Keith Gabbard offers tips on being interviewed and discusses how telling stories can positively shape coverage.
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Andy Johns: What can you do to help tell your story if you’re interviewed by a media outlet? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. I’m your host, Andy Johns, and I’m joined today by Keith Gabbard. Once again, Keith, thanks for joining us. He is the general manager and CEO at People’s Rural Telephone in McKee, Kentucky. Keith, thanks for being on.
Keith Gabbard: Thank you Andy. Thanks for asking me.
Andy Johns: Sure. We are here at NTCA’s RTIME event, the big conference they do every year in Phoenix, Arizona. You probably heard a few of the episodes from there. Keith was nice enough to come by because Keith has been on a little bit of a media — I don’t know if it’s a frenzy or not — but there’s a lot of media attention coming to PRTC there in Kentucky. And I wanted just to take a minute to talk with Keith about being interviewed and about telling that story. So if you don’t mind, let’s run down, because it’s quite a list. I guess you are now an international podcast star. You were interviewed by a podcast in Canada, and then several other publications. If you don’t mind, what are some of the publications y’all have been featured in recently?
Keith Gabbard: Well, of course Kentucky’s biggest newspaper, The Courier-Journal out of Louisville. We had an interview with them and a story, a couple different stories with them. And, of course, the biggest one probably, back in December, was The New Yorker magazine. That was a little bit stressful for us. I had a reporter come down, and for about three days and spent three days with us in our community. And, of course, in eastern Kentucky where we live, we’re not used to positive media out of New York about eastern Kentucky. So we were a little nervous about it, but the story came out a really nice story and in a positive spin. And our community, I think, really appreciated that and our company and me. It was a very positive story and a good story. I’ve had feedback from all over the country, whether it’s family or peers in the business, that read that story and really thought it did a good job of telling the story of rural telecom providers like us.
Andy Johns: Absolutely. So, I didn’t realize it was three days that the reporter was there. So that had to make you a little nervous, having somebody there, you know, just looking over your shoulder. Or what kinds of things, or how did you approach that? Okay, she’s here for three days. Was she relying on you guys to help set up some of those appointments and meetings with folks?
Keith Gabbard: Yeah, the way it started, I mean, she lives in very rural Vermont. Her broadband service is not very good. And she called NTCA actually and was doing a story and an interview with Shirley Bloomfield, some of those folks. And they gave her our name, and she called. And we did an interview over the phone for a while about the kind of things our company is doing. And then I invited her to come down to visit, and her and the folks at The New Yorker decided to do it. And she set her own schedule, and she said, “you help me talk to some folks. Here’s a couple of different folks I might like to talk to, but I’m depending on you to help me.” I helped set up all her interviews, and sort of went with her for most of them and showed her, you know, I wanted to show her the community in both counties we serve. And you know, if you interview two or three people in each county, it’s going to take a while. So I mean, she came in early on a Wednesday and left late on Friday. And it was a good experience. Really nice lady. I didn’t know her, but I know now, [she is] a very talented writer.
Andy Johns: Yeah. So at PRTC itself, were you the only person she talked to? Or did she talk to other staff members? Or how did you guys kind of help control the message that you could?
Keith Gabbard: Well, she did her initial interview with me, and then I took her down to the operations manager and showed her head in, and all that; what some of the things look like of the service we’re providing, the all fiber gigabit capable service that we provide. So she got to talk to some of those staff. And then we had lunch and some of our other staff joined us, our customer service manager and my executive assistant joined her, and we all bonded. We all own dogs. She’s a dog lover. I think that might’ve helped us. One thing I learned about Sue Halpern is she’s a dog lover and a soft ice cream lover. So that was two of her passions. And so we, you know, sort of made friends with her. We just treated her well, and we’re genuine with her. And, although, you know, we come from different backgrounds, whatever she asked, we tried to answer. And we let her talk to some of our elected officials, and we showed her our virtual living room and our library and talked about the work from home teleworks things. And then she talked to a superintendent in one of our school systems, how using it in education and just, you know, whatever she thought she wanted to see, whoever she wanted to talk to, we tried to make that connection. And for most cases, we were able to do that. There were a few, she wanted to talk to that we couldn’t get them connected because their schedule.
Andy Johns: Sure, sure. I would be tempted if it were me, and I knew she was talking to staff to have, you know, coach everybody up and have some talking points, and script it out as much as possible so that you know what you’re talking about. Did you guys do, I mean, obviously your staff has had some pretty high profile events come through there, but was there anything that you guys did to kind of be on point? Or do you think it’s just overall kind of culture and everybody knows what you’re doing, where everybody was pointed in the same direction anyway?
Keith Gabbard: I didn’t really worry about that. Of course, when we went down to the operation center where all the technical stuff was, and we let her tour that, I was actually with her and our operations manager, but I would’ve been fine if he had done it himself. And then some of the other folks, I didn’t have any problem. I think they were quizzing her as much as she was quizzing them. Just a conversation.
Andy Johns: Sure. Now there have been, other than The New Yorker was the recent big one, but I know there have been some other big publications that have featured you guys before. Are there things that you think you’ve done as the interviewee, the person being interviewed, that has led to a better story or a better outcome? Or some things maybe that you did that you wish different or maybe the outcome wasn’t what you had hoped? Are there anythings that you feel like you can pass along to folks if they’re being interviewed that they need to pay careful attention to?
Keith Gabbard: Well, I’m always nervous about what they might write, because you never know.
Andy Johns: You never know, yeah.
Keith Gabbard: But I’ve never refused an interview. I’ve always done them, and it’s actually worked out for us. I think probably good luck might have as much to do with it as anything, but we do have a pretty good story to tell. I mean, rural broadband is something we’re all passionate about. But we live in, you know, in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, and a lot of people have a negative connotation about that. And they don’t know that there’s some good things going on there. And then, you know, they all seem to be captivated by Old Bub, the mule who helped put up the fiber.
Andy Johns: I had that in my notes to bring up, if you didn’t.
Keith Gabbard: And everybody wants a picture of Old Bub. And everybody wants to talk about Old Bub. And, you know, we’re going to ride Old Bub for as long as we can to help get our story out. And I think the irony of a mule helping build state of the art fiber optic cable, this seems to catch the attention of people, especially in urban areas.
Andy Johns: Sure. If there’s somebody who hasn’t heard the Old Bub story yet, would you kind of give us the background there?
Keith Gabbard: Well, I guess our first story about Old Bub was four or five years ago, and Old Bub is just the name of a mule that’s in our terrain where we lay up in the mountains. There’s some places where equipment and trucks and even people have a hard time getting in. Most of our cable is aerial, so we’d just string the fiber optic cable when we were building it. One of our contractors used a mule to help do that, and he could really do the work of a lot of men. It really was helpful. It’s not nothing that new to area. People have used mules, farmers especially, for many, many years. But this one particular contractor used one a lot for us, and we got some pictures of it. And it just went viral, and those pictures are like 10 years old, but people are still wanting them. And then when they call me or come, they want a picture, or they want to go meet Old Bub. We don’t even know if Old Bub’s alive. We never owned him. A contractor that worked for for us did. But it’s pretty cool. It’s a great story. And it’s really captured the attention of the people, and I’m sure a lot of companies have done similar things. But it’s amazing how one little thing will catch the attention and just go viral.
Andy Johns: Sure. Is that something that they’re always bringing up when they’re doing the research, or is that something that as you tell the story you kind of bring up? Or are they coming in asking the questions of Old Bub?
Keith Gabbard: I have never brought it up. They always ask about it, because they’ve researched us and found some other story that mentioned it, I’m sure. And then when The Courier-Journal was doing their story, someone had told me that there was a guy wrote a song about Old Bub, and Old Bub building fiber into our community. And his name was Brett Ratliff. And so The Courier-Journal, when I found out about that, they had him come to Louisville and record that song, and they got a link to it on their articles.
Andy Johns: How cool is that? So, last two questions for you here, but there would be folks that would say, well, if your job is building networks there in Jackson and Owsley County, Kentucky (I don’t know how many copies of The New Yorker, obviously it’s a national magazine, I don’t know how many folks), but you probably didn’t pick up any customers by being in those magazines. What is the reason why, like you said, you’ve never turned down an interview? What is the reason why you think it’s so important to tell that story in those national publications?
Keith Gabbard: Well, I think there’s multiple reasons. For one that is on the online version of The New Yorker, so anybody can read it, even on the printed version. Of course, I also realize people in our area don’t typically read that magazine. But if national attention can be given or even international to what we’re doing as an example of what a lot of rural telcos broadband providers are doing, how we’re helping our communities, yeah, I think that’s good for all of us. Also, I mean we’re in the process of building out into other communities that we have not traditionally served. We can use this as an example of, you know, we’re a credible company that some of these people have never heard of us. They’re not our normal incumbent customer.
Andy Johns: That’s a good point.
Keith Gabbard: So, you know, we try to push that if they say, “well, who are you guys?” Well, here’s an article about us. We’ve been around for a while. And you know, that’s a tool we can use. That’s not really why we did the interview, but now that it came out, it’s certainly something we can use. Yeah, I just think it’s good for the whole industry, and it brings attention to our community. I have a niece that’s a school teacher that when that New Yorker article came out, she’s was doing some kind of GoFundMe for a project in school. The next day she got a call from some person in New York that made a donation to her class because she had read that story and wanted to help that community.
Andy Johns: You just never know, I guess.
Keith Gabbard: You never know.
Andy Johns: That’s cool, very cool. So, and I know that we’ve talked a lot about The New Yorker interview, but I know there’ve been plenty of other interviews that you’ve done by some of the bigger outlets along the way. The last thing I had for you is, what advice would you have for somebody in the rural telecom industry if they get a call from a major publication or a major media outlet? What advice would you have for them? You know, do you take a minute and compose your thoughts or I guess just kind of, if they get a phone call from one of these outlets, what should they do? What advice do you have for them?
Keith Gabbard: From my experience, and I am in no way an expert on being interviewed either in person or on the radio or TV or anything else. But I just try to be honest, try to be genuine. If you can find out sort of what their agenda is and tell them up front, you know, I don’t want this to be used for this, or I don’t want to be quoted in this way, make that known up front. And usually they’ll tell you, you know, what they want to use it for what they want to do. And you know, the ones I’ve talked to have been very honest. If it’s been something that we didn’t want to go on the record about, I didn’t go on the record about it. And, I think, fear of the unknown or fear of a bad thing happening will keep us from doing some things that could really help our company. Because some of the attention that we’ve got is something we would never have enough money to pay to get.
Andy Johns: Right.
Keith Gabbard: And so, you know, it’s been a positive experience for us. And I know all stories about rural America aren’t positive. And I’ve seen plenty of negative ones about where I’m from. But you know, we just took a risk. We think we have a good story to tell, a good positive story to tell. We’re trying to help our community. It’s really hard to make a negative out of what we’re doing. And so we just had a faith that it would come out that way in the final end of the story or any of the stories. Like you said, there’s been multiple ones. We’ve been on other podcasts, even one in Canada. And you know, I got calls after that story from people in Oregon, people in West Virginia. They were all wanting to talk about, you know, some of the things we were doing. And it’s a little overwhelming actually. I didn’t realize that many people would read it. But anyway, it’s been a positive experience for us and we’re thankful for.
Andy Johns: Absolutely. And if you’re not willing to get out there and tell that positive story, then you know, it’s no guarantee that it’ll get told.
Keith Gabbard: Nope. I mean, you guys have been telling us for years, tell your story, tell your story.
Andy Johns: That’s what we’re all about.
Keith Gabbard: It’s all we’re trying to do.
Andy Johns: Right. He is Keith Gabbard. He is the CEO and general manager at People’s Rural Telephone in McKee, Kentucky. Thanks for joining me, Keith.
Keith Gabbard: Thank you, Andy.
Andy Johns: I’m Andy Johns, your host with WordSouth. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.