Today’s guest post is by Mark Pepper. Mark Pepper is Peppercom’s man in Spain. We let him think he’s the head of Peppercom’s European Division. In reality, he is just a man in Spain. He always wanted to work for a company with Pepper in its name. It took more than forty years.
I was around the age of six years old when I made my first PR faux-pas. It was at my first school, a tiny private establishment that nestled anonymously along a leafy road of well-to-do homes.
My class teacher that year was the school’s headmistress, a woman whose shadow, forty years on, still casts an unrivalled pall of terror across my otherwise care-free childhood memories. I went to school in an age when kids were – quite rightly – scared of their teachers and not the other way around, and Mrs Benson was the living embodiment, the very personification, a veritable exemplar of all that the modern child needs but lacks when they enter their graffiti-daubed corridors. She scared the living poop out of us.
It was close to home-time one afternoon, and Mrs B. looked even more stern than usual. She stood up at the front of the class, glared omnividently at us all, and announced that she had a serious matter to discuss. Two children died there and then. Poor little hearts just gave out with the fear.
It was a lifetime ago, but I can still picture it vividly and what follows is probably fairly close to verbatim.
“Six squares of fudge have been stolen from my desk drawer.” (Mrs B. used to reward good work and behaviour with a piece of fudge. This was before adults knew/cared that creamy blocks of sugar made your teeth fall out.)
No one said a word.
“I know how many pieces there were, and six have been taken. Which of you is responsible?”
Not a sound, save for the dead weight of another child’s forehead crashing into their desk-top.
“None of us is leaving this room until I find out who has stolen my fudge. Your parents will have to wait in the road, and you will all go without dinner.”
Slowly, reluctantly, a hand was raised. The kid was already crying.
“How many did you take?”
Jeepers, man, just admit to the six so we can go home.
“Go and wait outside the room.”
The shame-faced urchin shuffled out, leaving a trail of salty drops along the linoleum.
“That leaves five more.”
Eventually, another hand went up, then another. Two pieces stolen, one piece stolen.
“There are still two pieces to be accounted for.” Damn, this woman was good; she was teaching us maths while simultaneously scaring us to death.
I looked around the classroom. We all looked around the classroom. Watching for signs of wobbly chin or welling eyes. Time slowed to a crawl, as those caught in car crashes often report it does.
I stuck my hand in the air.
“Mark Pepper, how many did you take?”
“Two,” I said.
“Go and wait outside the room.”
The atmosphere outside was very sombre and, it has to be said, pretty mucousy. I tried to lighten the mood. I didn’t feel at all bad. Had my guilty cohorts known what a sociopath was, they’d have thought I was one.
Shortly, our parents arrived and were told the ghastly truth. My mum was livid. She made me go home and get my saved-up pocket money and she took me to the local shop and made me buy a box of chocolates big enough to exhaust my cash entirely.
The next day at school, my mum marched me into the classroom and forced me to stand on a chair and make a formal apology to Mrs B. and the innocents of the class, before I moved around the room, handing out the chocolates to some annoyingly smug little faces. None of the other culprits made a similar gesture of atonement. Ironic, when I was the only one who hadn’t touched the bloody fudge.
The day before, I hadn’t stolen anything; I’d just wanted to go home. I didn’t tell my parents this. I sensed they would have been more annoyed by my idiotic martyrdom than by the crime itself. I was in my late twenties before it occurred to me to own up to them. We laughed ourselves silly.
I was put in mind of this story by an article I read on Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal, The Short Life of a PR Fiasco. It essentially looks at the way in which our modern technological world has affected how PR disasters can be handled. The days of keeping a lid on things are over. One whisper, one believer, and it’s viral.
The Journal surveyed several PR experts on their views on how such crises pan out, and categorised their responses as "the shiny object", "the loyalty issue", and "the lack of choice". Respectively, you have the big fuss that’s fleetingly in and out of the public mind as the next big fuss inevitably takes centre stage and nudges it into the wings; the reliance on the loyalty of those who have favoured, and will forever favour, the accused, no matter what; and the reluctant public shrug that signals the acceptance that there are no other viable options available.
But what I really liked was a comment by corporate PR guru Robert L. Dilenschneider, who said, "Tell it and tell it fast. If you do that, it goes away in a day. The attention span of the public is very short."
Wow. Tell the truth. What a novel idea. It’ll never catch on, of course, but I love it. I love it when people just hold their hands up – whether to fudge or fraud. It restores a little human faith. Come on, people, we all know who’s done what, so just say it. You’ll feel so much better.
“Hey, I screwed up, sue me …”
Ay, there’s the rub.
Dilenschneider admits that you can’t take the simplistic fess-up approach with really serious issues. Regulators may be scandalously lax at times, but, when they do take action, they do more than just frogmarch you down to the sweetie shop to buy some chocolate.
“Grab some cash, Dick, you’re coming with us. Hands up, who wants what? Mary? Tootsie Roll?”