“Clients Gone Wild” Series: You did What?! In Front of Who?!

We were at a lovely lunch at a popular, local café one weekday in 2008 when our cell phone buzzed. It was a client, an important one at that, so we took the call. After a few moments into the call, my heart sank to my feet. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

For two years, we led the public relations efforts for one of the largest, national nonprofits in its sector.   Its mission was supported by millions of donors and there was news coverage on the organization almost daily.

It was an awesome gig.

But there was always one little thorn in our side: the founder of the organization.  He was loosely involved with the organization, but he was involved enough to cause a stir.  He was a passionate man.  He had great ideas and controversial opinions.  He did what he wanted, when he wanted, and he never held his tongue. He had no filter.  His boisterous manner and thought-provoking ideas made him a perceived troublemaker by some, even though he really had a heart of gold.

Knowing this, we spent hours upon hours giving him thorough media training. We did our best to smooth his rough edges and teach him how to conduct himself in interviews.  We taught him processes and asked that he send all interview requests to us before committing to them.

So, I was surprised when I answered his call over lunch that day. He was frantic and out of breath when he said, “Hey there.  Need your advice.  Good Morning America came to interview me today. I spent about an hour giving the camera crews a full tour of our facilities.  Then I walked into the interview and Brian Ross was sitting there, waiting for me.  It was a dark room with lights centered on an empty chair, which was for me.  I decided maybe this interview wasn’t a good idea, so I walked out.  When I walked out to my car, the cameras followed me. I think they filmed me getting into my car and driving away.”

There are several things wrong with this scenario:

  1. What in the world could ABC News and Good Morning America be investigating?!  This nonprofit helps thousands of people every day; I’ve seen it with my own two eyes.
  2. My client’s founder was contacted by Good Morning America without telling me.
  3. My client’s founder accepted an interview with Good Morning America without telling me.
  4. My client’s founder already went on camera with the camera crew.
  5. Brian Ross is the investigative reporter for ABC.
  6. Then, my client’s founder refused to sit down with said reporter.
  7. The ABC photographers filmed the founder driving away. Now, when the story airs, he’s going to look guilty, even if he did nothing wrong.

By the time he called me, it was too late.  The story eventually did run on Good Morning America.  It made the founder and my client look bad. Because he refused to sit down for the interview, and because he ran away from the interview on camera, he looked guilty of something he didn’t do.

If he had only told us about the interview request when it came across his desk, things may have turned out differently.   If we had only known the reasons behind the investigation, things might have turned out differently, too.   Despite the founder’s distant involvement in the nonprofit, the interview had some not-so-great repercussions on the organization.

In the end, our training fell on deaf ears. No matter how hard or how many times we tried to instill best practices, as our CEO says, “Never teach a pig to sing. It will waste your time and annoy the pig.”

P.S.  – Because I know you’re wondering:  We continued to work for this organization while we believed in its mission, despite the initial investigation into the founder’s activities. When it became clear that he would not step away from the organization, and we felt we could no longer represent it, we discontinued our work for the them.

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