THE ART OF public relations, as Abbey Lazarus sees it, is the art of salesmanship. After 23 years of doing both, the long-time March of Dimes spokeswoman is giving up her title.
Lazarus leaves her position to open her own public relations agency, and her first client is none other than the March of Dimes. She's guided the non-profit organization through two decades of walk-a-thons and public service campaigns, making it one of the most recognized non-profits in Baltimore.
"I think it's an incredible organization," she said. "The people, the volunteers. Fighting birth defect is an important goal."
Lazarus began work as a part-time employee in 1969, but after a month on the job, she persuaded the March of Dimes that the position required full-time work. Five years later, she became the regional publicity coordinator for Delaware, Washington, New Jersey and surrounding states. In 1981, she became the national director of Chapter Media Promotions. She eventually became weary of travel and settled back in Baltimore.
All these years, she's realized that organizations really have to sell themselves to get attention. It's relatively simple. "It's nothing more than salesmanship," she said. "If you have an idea, how do you sell it?"
She turned to the press, television and radio, involving the colorful personalities and local celebrities in various March of Dimes publicity schemes. She got TV reporters and radio DJs to run in marathons and march in walk-a-thons. Mayor William Donald Schaefer was a big supporter, as were other city officials who showed up year after year to trek along on the walk-a-thons.
This month, Gov. Schaefer wrote a letter to the March of Dimes board of directors praising her work. He wrote, "When I think of Abbey Lazarus, I think of a person who is deeply committed to helping others. She is recognized as one of the finest publicists in Baltimore, and has carved out an impressive record of caring and community service."
"She was generally very inventive," said Bob Russell, senior executive vice president for the March of Dimes out of White Plains, N.Y.
"I'm sure she may have stepped on toes along the way, but it was all with well-intentioned motivation on her part," said Russell, who's worked with Lazarus since 1969.
Lazarus discovered that including media people increased the likelihood that they would publicize the event on air or in print. And it worked. Now, everyone's copying it.
"I was lucky. For years nobody figured it out," she said.
By her own admission, she's pulled some hokey stunts to generate publicity. She got Ed Koch, former mayor of New York City, to call up one year and put up a bushel of apples against a bushel of crabs to compete with Baltimore to see which city would raise more money in the walk-a-thon.
"There was a lot of stuff I've done that has worked out," she said. "I was lucky."
Lazarus faced one of the most embarrassing moments in her career when volunteers threw a box of pledge sheets -- worth $250,000 -- into the incinerator by mistake after the 1984 walk-a-thon. She had to face the public and tell the press about the mistake, asking walkers to copy and send in their pledge sheets. So many people responded that the March of Dimes raised more money that year -- close to $1 million -- than any other year.
"We couldn't decide if we should keep quiet or go public with it," she said. "We made more money that year. It was absolutely amazing. The city was on our side."
Now that she's not with the March of Dimes full time, she'll be pursuing hobbies, including cooking big pots of soup, working out on the Nordic track and taking getaway vacations at Myrtle Beach.