Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Politically Correct

In my first job out of college, my boss was an attorney. Non-practicing, but he still had a lawyer's sensibilities when it came to the hazards of sloppy communication. He micro-edited my work and thus broke me of a lot of the bad habits and flabby writing that develops (because it's actually rewarded) in college.

He taught me to avoid loaded words and phrases -- the kind that will provoke a reaction that distracts from whatever you're trying to say. He taught me, on one hand, to be more precise in what I was saying but, on the other, to be vague when necessary. That is, to avoid absolutes and to be sure to qualify things -- because business, like life, is rarely black and white. Mostly he taught me to really pay attention to the way I communicate. Every word matters. And because so many words have different meanings, conscious and unconscious, they need to be chosen carefully.

In my next job I was writing for 50 different state elected officials of varying political persuasions. Learning to please, and not piss off, all those different constituencies was invaluable.

Then I worked for one elected official in a fairly public capacity, so it became not just about what I wrote and what I said but who I was and how I behaved. I was terribly -- and necessarily -- paranoid. The papers are full of stories of disgraced political aides caught in one problem or another, from drunk driving to messy personal relationships.

If I went to a party and came upon people smoking pot in the garage, I got the hell out of there. I actually fell off a barstool once and was mortified that it would end up in the paper. (As it turns out, reporters had plenty of ammo on me just with the official things I uttered when I was on the job.)

We also learned to be incredibly careful when talking on cell phones. There was a case in the late '80s or early '90s where some Virginia politicos, I believe, had their cell phone calls randomly intercepted and recorded by some ham radio operator then turned over to competing political operatives. Indictments ensued.

So we learned that when calling someone on a cell phone to announce that fact up front. And when leaving a message that wasn't to be listened to on a cell phone, we always warned that it was confidential. Not that we were breaking laws or saying particularly terrible things -- it's just a matter of imagining your most candid moments, when maybe you're at your most tired or worst, being aired on TV or printed in the papers.

And in agency life, we all heard the possibly apocryphal, but chilling nonetheless, story of the young account guy who was seen by his client patronizing a competitor's business. The agency was immediately fired. So damned straight if you're working for Miller you will not be ordering a Bud Light in a bar.

All this to say, I'm constantly shocked by how careless people can be. There was a story last year about a PR agency guy who, upon arriving in his client's city, twittered about what a shitty town it is. He wasn't fired -- just publicly embarrassed. This other guy, an actor, was fired, though. He didn't say anything impolitic about his client -- he just mouthed off to some tea partiers.

I feel bad for him, and he realizes he made a mistake and sounded very gracious to the client in the story. But that's just the way it goes. Clients don't like that stuff. Not because they disagree with the message or the thought or anything else. They just don't want any distraction whatsoever from the message they're paying very dearly to communicate.

Another big advertiser was recently shocked to see one of the actors in their commercials doing a TV spot for KY. In their next round they added that to their list of conflicts. Which is totally understandable and within their rights. If you've got some wholesome spokesman selling your All-American, apple-pie product, the last thing you want is for consumers to see that same guy hawking marital aids on the late-night channel. It's confusing.

Is it overly cautious? Maybe. But with lots of people to choose from in the market, why take a risk? That's why I always try to be super, super careful with what I write and say and do. I don't think I've ever put anything on this blog that I wouldn't want the person or the subject of what I said to see.

My Facebook account is for friends only. Well, also theater-people, but no work-work people unless they are friends first. And though I may slip up once in a while with the political rants, I am careful not to malign people, or whole segments of people, online. It's just a really stupid thing to do.

That's another lesson I learned. Burning bridges. There was this kid in our agency who gossiped and bad-mouthed a colleague who was at the same level. A few months later, the other person was promoted and the gossip ended up working for her. Oops.

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