Life after a PR disaster

Life after a PR disaster
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In May 2009, a young, hapless PR girl at Pulse Communications was the subject of a storm in a teacup after she sent out an email to some of Sydney’s best-known food writers asking them to blog about cat food.

“You’d be required to write a blog entry (about 500 words) by Wednesday May 20th on Fancy Feast cat food and the fact the product is so good it has a stall at the Good Food and Wine Show,” Lucy Treble wrote. “I would need to lock down confirmation by the end of this week to give you adequate time to pen a blog. Please find more information below and do not hesitate to contact me if you have any queries.”

A reply from The Weekend Australian Magazine’s food and wine editor John Lethlean described himself as “slightly delirious with mirth” at Treble’s approach.

“Unfortunately, your email doesn’t indicate just what sort of money you have in mind for me to trash my entire career, but I’ll just assume it’s substantial, given that after I do your bidding, I’ll be sacked by News Limited and will henceforth have a lot of trouble gaining another position or selling freelance work,” Lethlean wrote.

“I’m sure you understand.”

Treble’s boss, Pulse managing director Samantha Allen, was quick to apologise, claiming the email should never have been approved or distributed.

Just four days later, One Green Bean managing director Kat Thomas (pictured) reached out via The Sydney Morning Herald, offering Treble a job. “Lucy is not at fault in this situation,” Thomas said. “She should have been given the appropriate guidance to handle blogger outreach rather than being left to basically have a crack at it. She was a lamb to the slaughter.”

Thomas added she’d be happy to offer her a role at One Green Bean to give her the opportunity to “work alongside experts in both traditional and social media relations”.

It was framed by media writers as yet another opportunity for self-promotion from a PR company – just talk, you see. Nothing more was ever said and nobody ever thought to ask what became of Lucy Treble.

But just a couple of months after the cat food controversy, Treble was quietly let go from her role as account co-ordinator at Pulse Communications. In need of a job, she got in touch with Thomas to see if the offer was genuine.

“I was very impressed,” Thomas says. “She got in touch with me, came in to see me and basically tabled whether I was true to my word and absolutely, I was.”

Treble started the following Monday and stayed for nearly three years as a senior account executive before moving to London in late 2012. She was, says Thomas, one of the company’s strongest publicists and a really savvy operator. “She was a big loss when she left. We invested a lot of time and energy in training and development, which we do with all of our staff. But it was a case of a junior operator needing supervision rather than being handed some instructions and told to get on with it.”

Treble was 20 years old at the time and hadn’t even finished her degree. New to the PR game, she naturally didn’t know how to engage with bloggers but was “pretty much hung out to dry as an individual”, with all hell breaking loose. “She was absolutely vilified,” Thomas recalls. “I just watched this thing unfold over about 12 hours and I just felt sick. I thought, this is some girl’s reputation, who has obviously spent three years doing a degree and studying and has got herself into a job and that is all being undone.”

Thomas contacted the Sydney Morning Herald to say on the record she thought it was wrong to pin the blame on her. She hadn’t been given the guidance around what was then still an emerging area. “No-one knew the rules, there were some safeguards and some commonsense tactics, but her employer had a duty of care to train in her in how to do all that.”

Thomas, who cut her teeth at London agency Cake in the early Noughties, sees herself as fortunate to have trained at a time when the social media world didn’t even exist. “My fuck-ups were pretty much off the record and were all incredibly innocent and benign. Whereas today, I can just see someone’s career unravel and the damage that could be done.”

In an age when googling a prospective employee is de rigeur, Thomas’ act of kindness to Treble saved her from an ongoing digital ball and chain. “I felt any employer would Google her and see this whole shit storm that had unfolded, and it would become a tarnish and a blemish. I hated that, because I felt responsible from an industry perspective.”

Thomas remembers feeling young, impulsive, inexperienced and unworldy in her early PR days pitching stories to news desks for the Daily Mail, the Sun and the News of the World as a fresh-faced 21-year-old. She would typically be given less than 10 seconds to capture someone’s attention before being disconnected. “There’s an art to it. Sometimes they’d use an expletive and hang up. I found it so confronting in my first six months – and then I just had to ‘man up’.

“It was tough training but very good for you, because it made you perfect the art of understanding what was newsworthy and being able to pitch that without calling a very high-profile journalist and saying ‘did you get my press release’.  You just can’t get away with that. You certainly couldn’t when I trained.”

Tougher still was the insistence of clients to pitch a story regardless of the news agenda. Thomas remembers being forced to pitch a story about a snack food that was “very light in terms of news content” the same day as the Paddington railway crash in October 1999, which turned London upside down.

“Everyone was struggling to get to work, no-one knew what was happening or how many fatalities there had been and I had a client who was absolutely insistent. I was young and had no sense of being able to push back.”

Thomas “defiantly” made one phone call to prove her point and fed the response back to the client. It was, she says, a learning curve.

“Everyone is human, everyone fucks up – it is to what degree and to what scale it escalates. You live or die by the decisions you make and if you’re not getting the training and the support then it is a quick road to Fuck-up-ville.”

The news currency around Treble’s unfortunate email blew up quickly but died down again just as rapidly. “These things blow up in the media and then they’re yesterday’s news,” says Thomas. But the snippet is still there online, alongside Treble’s name, until some unspecified point in the future. Possibly forever.

Thomas never spoke about it again and never tried to capitalise on offering Treble employment by garnering PR for her agency through it. “I didn’t want it to look like a cheap publicity stunt – us hiring her to get more column inches for One Green Bean, that wasn’t what it was about.” But they didn’t speak of it again and nobody ever thought to ask what had happened, til now.

“It was known within the industry that she’d come to us and she was doing well. In fact, when we did her exit interview she told me about being approached by head hunters and we laughed about the irony of it – that three years previously, she wondered if she’d ever work again.”

Thomas maintains that Treble was made of “very stern stuff”. Others would have walked away.

“I’ve told her, I’m the first person you call when you come home.”

 

Hazel Phillips is a New Zealand based writer and editor. Her day job sees here edit Idealog.co.nz and she has also just released a book on the history of advertising in NZ called Sell. For more information on the book click here and follow her on twitter with @hazelphilli 

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