How a press blunder can be career threatening

August 9, 2007

images.jpgA young executive provides a story in good faith to a journalist. Now her career is under threat. It’s a lesson in catastrophe theory. We compare the case with that of a project team whose actions escalated to threaten a corporation’s good name

This week a press item outlined a fascinating human interest story. Journalist Eve Tahmincioglu had developed a story from Kathy [disguised name] who had been given PR responsibilities to publicise her organization. Kathy was very inexperienced, and was highly motivated to supply the story. Then Eve received an email from Kathy suggesting that the story had been a hoax.

“Hello Eve, my name is (Kathy) and I just got into the office after being out of town for 2 weeks; the CEO just informed me about an article, and apparently someone in our office tapped into my e-mail which was left on my desk and made up all those things about our company. This makes our business look really bad. I’m not blaming you at all; we are holding a staff meeting to find out who is responsible for this. If there is any way you can remove the article sooner that would be most appreciated.”
… As a journalist, an e-mail like this is probably one of the worst things you’ll ever receive. There is nothing worse than putting out bogus information …

The story is a good read. Suffice to say, that Kathy had not been working under close supervision. I won’t spoil it any more for you, as I want mostly to consider an angle not covered in the original. My ‘take’ is the way in which dealings with the press can indeed be career threatening. Also, that the danger can spring up very quickly, and become difficult for those involved to prevent something very nasty happening to their company, and (obviously) to their own prospects.

The project team and the press release

Once upon a time (as all good stories start) there was a project team, who like Kathy, has been given an assignment with a PR component. Also like Kathy, the team was motivated, energetic, and (well let’s say) a bit impulsive. Also the episode went close to being career-threatening for the team members.

The team were working to a brief from a project sponsor who had wanted them to develop some good PR for the company. They had shown considerable creativity in beefing up the story until it was really quite newsworthy. So much so, that it attracted TV as well as press attention.

In remarkably rapid time, the media brought its own version of due diligence into play, by checking the authenticity of the claims. The story was largely accurate, but it implied that it was endorsed by a very senior person in the organization involved in the story. The VSP’s office brings the press enquiry to his notice. VSP is very angry, and refuses to have anything to do with the press or with the story. Calls for explanations. Project team and various senior executives have a very tough time dealing with angry VSP who fears for the corporate reputation of the company. Things calm down when press decide there is no story and no point in taking it further.

What’s going on?

As a business case study I would be inclined to leave it at this point. Maybe suggest a few pointers for discussion purposes.

Several possibilities seem to be worth considering. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

1 The foolishness model. Kathy was foolish. The project team members were pretty foolish. Couldn’t they see the dangers coming up, particularly considering their relative inexperience. The VSP was foolish for not dealing calmly with the matter, which turned out OK in the end.

2 Weick’s catastrophe models. Karl Weick has deeply examined sources of crisis and catastrophe. In airline and rail disasters it seems that several low-probability events crop up in ways that would be hard to anticipate. Faced with the terrifying and unexpected, many people become fixated on inappropriate explanations of what’s going on.

3 Risk management models. High profile and expensive projects are increasingly subject to risk-management processes. These reduce the dangers associated with the known types of risk.

4 Denial. There are various versions of this in social psychology. Psychodynamic theories suggest that ‘dysfunctional groups’ hold on to inappropriate explanations before and long after a crisis occurs. The consequences include scapegoating, (it’s all his fault) and preoccupations which detract from effective efforts by the group members to deal with the task before them.

5 Social pressures. Versions of undue acceptance of authority, for example of a team leader and their judgements. These were the effects revealed in the famous Stanley Milgram experiments (I was only obeying orders).

Whichever sorts of explanation you might favour, I’m inclined to build a few special contextual factors into the equation. The inexperience of Kathy and of the project team in dealing with the press. The lack of judgment of possible consequences of actions and possibilities of unintended consequences in each case.