Kickback kick-in-the-pants

I’m a joker. But jokes in print are not the same as jokes told in person, eyeball to eyeball. I have learned how to wink in video, but have had mixed results trying to wink in print. (I wish I could bottle some of the lightning of Mark Twain, Garrison Keillor, or Penelope Trunk!)

A few years back I did something I’ve almost never done … submitted a bid to do a state government project. It was a small awards presentation for companies who hired workers through a state job-training program. Wonder of wonders, we won the bid, and they loved the business theatre evening we produced, thanks in large part to the terrific creative photography of Mary Lou Uttermohlen… so the next year we were able to get the contract again without quite as many formalities.

After I got the call awarding us the new project, I wrote a friendly thank-you letter to our client, who acted as a sort of executive producer on the project, and who I had gotten to know quite well. I said something like, “Next time you’re in town, I’ll award you a kickback in the form of lunch at Rigsby’s!”
Next thing I knew I got a very stiff letter from this erstwhile client/friend, canceling the contract and scolding me for my careless and unethical language. A few days later I got a phone call from a reporter at the Toledo Blade, 200 miles to the north… saying he heard I had been fired from a state government contract for offering kickbacks… He wrote one of those “dumbest guy in the world” articles about me. What was I thinking?!!!

Oops... too late to take it back

Oops... too late to take it back

It was a great lesson. Obviously, I thought, the kickback line had been a joke. But some jokes aren’t funny, especially when they’re in print. From time to time I’ve had similar misunderstandings in email… though none that cost me a $10,000 contract (or a $50,000 lawsuit as happened recently after someone’s Twitter post.)

How does it relate to authenticity? I still maintain that whenever I am representing a client’s brand, they are best served by an informality and self-effacing humor that at times will make them vulnerable. It’s often best to verbalize the questions and doubts in their audience’s mind. Authenticity pretty much demands that we swallow the old PR control-mindset and let negative comments be included in their public feedback loops. And evolved companies tend to poke fun at themselves, not their competition.

Whenever message-mogols are allowed to filter every word for negative nuance or exaggeration, the audience immediately senses that this is hype, not reality.

Yes, we all need to redline egregious misstatements like the one I just described — which use nasty words, demean groups of people, or hint at impropriety. And not just in public, but in private correspondence as well  … because we can assume all private words will one day become public.

Still, we also need to find a way for humor to survive, and humor always lives at the edge. When you’re hoping to sell cornflakes, you’ve got to let your messages be a little corny and a little flaky.

How about you? Any stories of foot-in-mouth disease?


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