© 2005 Jonathan Bernstein
Estimated Readership: 14,000+
JUST A THOUGHT
"There are but two equally dangerous extremes -- to shut reason out,
and to let nothing else in."
CRISIS MANAGER UNIVERSITY
Editor's Note: All three of this issue's articles are my commentary on real-life news stories and the lessons we can learn from them.Readers are encouraged to submit their own thoughts on this material for possible future publication.
Beyond Stupidity: Penn Waste Tries To Collect from Little Old Lady Who Has No Waste To Haul
My jaw dropped when I read a story out of York, PA sent to me by reader, crisis management pro and friend Rick Kelly.
The article from the York Daily Record started out:
"Clara Palmer doesn't put her trash out.
"Her Great Depression-era upbringing taught her to waste nothing. She's learned paper wrappers make good kindling for the wood stove. Some food scraps and other bio-degradable garbage are deposited onto a compost pile that eventually nourishes her flower beds. Almost everything else can be recycled.
"Any garbage that can't be reused is taken by her sons, Tom and David Palmer, to an incinerator or landfill. In addition to limiting the waste, the Springettsbury Township widow, whose income is limited, has had to keep expenses to a minimum; she won't use services she doesn't need or can't afford -- such as trash collection."
Apparently, to Penn Waste, the company with the trash hauling contract, this is a problem. Springettsbury Township's ordinances allow the contractor to sue any resident for not paying their share of waste-hauling fees, even if they don't use the service, and even if they're an 84-year-old, environmentally conscious woman who can't afford to hire an attorney. So, at least as of late last year, they were going after poor Clara for the whopping sum of $600 for overdue trash collection fees plus legal costs.
At the time the story was written, there was clearly a strong possibility that Clara Palmer might lose in a court of law. But in the court of public opinion, Penn Waste and Springettsbury Township were indubitably the big losers. Furthering the damage done simply by filing the action against the elderly woman, waste hauler spokesperson Scott Wagner said, "I am doing what I am required to do under the contract." He claimed that his $1 million bond would be in jeopardy if he were to renege on the deal and the township sued him."I do render a service whether she puts trash out or not," he said. "I still have to drive my truck by her house."
As Rick Kelly commented in his email to me, "I suppose the 'thinking' is that if they let this 84-year-old lady get away with it, pretty soon EVERYBODY will avoid putting their trash out...."
- Legal, operational AND public relations implications of company decisions must be weighed before they are implemented.
- The old adage about the Chinese character for "crisis" being a combination of symbols representing "danger" and "opportunity" was epitomized by this incident. Penn Waste could have used the situation as an opportunity to generate a lot of public goodwill simply by volunteering to pay the $600 bill for her. They wouldn't have been making any exception to the idea that everyone should pay their fair share, they would have simply been charitable.
Obviously, if there was any sound PR thinking at Penn Waste, it ended up in...the trash.
Editor's Note: I was unsuccessful in my attempt to find out, via an Internet search, what has transpired since this story broke in October 2004.If anyone knows, please share that info and I'll print it!
Take Polygraph Tests And Come Out Shooting: Marion Jones Defamation Case
There have been several criminal defense attorneys who approached me over the years with regard to the possibility of representing high profile individuals accused of significant wrongdoing. To each of them I said, "if your client can pass at least one, if not more polygraph exams given by a credible examiner, and if they are, in fact innocent, I can probably help your client a lot. If not, I prefer not to serve simply as a spin doctor."
I didn't end up with any clients from those conversations, but I was delighted to see sprinter Marion Jones come out shooting last December with her anti-defamation lawsuit against BALCO head Victor Conte, who told a national TV audience on ABC's 20/20 that he gave her steroids and watched her inject herself with them.
Jones' attorney retained a former FBI polygraph examiner, Ronald Homer, who is quoted in the lawsuit saying that he tested Jones about whether she ever used performance-enhancing drugs or was lying about "any personal use of performance-enhancing drugs." His conclusion? "It is my opinion that these responses are not indicative of deception."
In the court of public opinion, from all news stories I've read to date, Jones is coming across as the much-maligned athletic superstar and Conte, as Jones' lawsuit alleges, "appears motivated by a desire to curry favor with prosecutors, garner sensationalized media attention, bolster Conte's own financial and other self-interests and harm an individual against whom Conte has a long-standing grudge."
Some wonderful lessons in this:
- Polygraph exams are well received in the court of public opinion even if they're often not admissible in court. In my opinion, in a similar situation, I'd advise a client to get two, from different examiners, just to make the point even stronger.
- If you're innocent and say nothing, then you're guilty in the court of public opinion. From a PR perspective, the only way this can really hurt Jones is if, ultimately, she was found to have done want Conte alleged, but at this point his credibility is more in question than hers.
- If you're not innocent and protesteth loudly, you're Scott Peterson.
- Jones and her legal counsel appear to have been careful simply to quote the lawsuit rather than make any allegations verbally. I have been told by multiple attorneys that this is the "safe" way to attack someone, minimizing the risk of being accused of defamation yourself.
- You can make all sorts of allegations in a lawsuit, safely, knowing that the press will often quote the allegations verbatim.
Corn Growers Say "We're Not Crooks"
The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), in a January 27, 2005 press release, "expressed concern over the irresponsible misrepresentations of ethanol, the corn industry and U.S. farm policy that aired during NBC's Jan. 26 episode of The West Wing."
The press release went on to say:
"We understand The West Wing is a fictional program, but we also recognize the fact that the program has an influence on shaping public opinion," said NCGA President Leon Corzine. "The West Wing is one of the most popular programs on television and certainly many viewers believe they are seeing realistic depictions of our political process, as well as current social and economic issues."
OK, that's a reasonable statement, since they felt compelled to comment. But then they went on to inform readers that:
- "ethanol was characterized as a 'waste of taxpayers' money' and a corporate 'subsidy' for oil companies, agribusinesses and farmers. The program implied that politicians who support the ethanol industry are pandering to special interests.
- "a character on the program also made the false claim that 'producing a gallon of ethanol requires almost a gallon of oil.'
- "The episode also made the suggestion that federal safety net programs and corn sweeteners are somehow responsible for America's obesity crisis."
- In each case the NCGA gave facts which countered the alleged misinformation, but of course it was completely unnecessary to "repeat the negatives" that had already been bandied about by The West Wing. NCGA made the classic "I am not a crook" mistake of repeating a negative in the context of denying it. The association could simply have stated truths about the corn growing business, facts which it believes aren't well known based on the TV program's portrayal, without repeating the negative allegations.
- Until the NCGA issued the release, with accompanying media interviews, a whole lot of people who DON'T watch The West Wing or who missed that episode didn't know, and wouldn't have known, about this issue.
- The NCGA was saying, de facto, that there are people foolish enough to take information in a fictional show as factual -- which is true -- but I don't believe that (hopefully) small audience merited repeating the negatives to the entire country
CRISIS MANAGER BUSINESS ANNOUNCEMENTS
Teleseminar: Crisis Management & The Law
How PR Pros & Lawyers Can Work Together Effectively
Featuring Richard Levick and Ed Novak
February 23, 2-3 p.m. Eastern
There are still spots available for our Crisis Management & The Law teleseminar. Whether attempting to prevent or respond to crises, constructive and successful interaction between attorney and public relations professionals can significantly enhance results. Conversely, if they're butting heads, the results can be disastrous. Wise attorneys know that public relations considerations must be included in a CEO's deliberations, and vice versa. Not just when faced with litigation, but also when engaged in other sensitive transactions. Registration is $95 for "as many people as you can crowd around a speaker phone." You will find more information, and can register, at www.thecrisismanager.com.
Crisis Alert Service Launched
For anyone who missed the announcement, Bob Aronson and I just launched a free "Crisis Alert" service to bring you news of trends and events that we believe could evolve into crises in the near future. The first alert will come out in the next couple of days. [Note: Service has been discontinued.]
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ABOUT THE EDITOR & PUBLISHER
Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., www.bernsteincrisismanagement.com, a national crisis management public relations agency providing 24/7 access to crisis response professionals. The agency engages in the full spectrum of crisis management services: crisis prevention, response, planning & training. He has been in the public relations field since 1982, following five-year stints in both military intelligence and investigative reporting. Write to email@example.com.
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