Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Today is just not going so well

I got blasted today for doing something that at the time, I had never even considered might be problematic. Ever since I realised people were upset, I have felt kind of embarrassed and guilty that I hadn't considered there might be a problem. So I am curious to see whether you agree that I should have done things differently, and if so, what.

The background is that a community group I am the president of (the one Geekman calls Toastgraspers) is always a little desperate for publicity, and has a big problem with membership dwindling towards the end of each year. I have always been told we should do anything to keep up our public profile, including calling the newspaper every time we run an event even slightly newsworthy. I have never done this myself, though.

Yesterday I got an email from a journalist for this city's main newspaper, who wanted to do a two-page feature on our group, so I invited her along to the meeting, along with her photographer. I had the person leading today's meeting introduce them and explain what they were there for.

Anyway, just under half the group were horrified. They didn't want photos taken, didn't want pictures in the paper, didn't want their names or identities used. One in particular made a big fuss afterwards, including two follow-up emails, and said she'd have walked out on the spot if she'd known the visitors were "journalists" (her scare-quotes, not mine!). The person who had introduced them at the start of the meeting is not a native speaker of English, and nor is the person who made the most fuss afterwards, so presumably there were some problems with understanding the introductions. Since this person didn't realise what was going on until after the journalists had left, she now wants them not to use any of the photos they took, since most (all?) would have had her in them somewhere.

Anyway, now I'm feeling guilty and embarrassed, since it really should have occurred to me that people might not want journalists taking pictures and writing about them without them being forewarned. I have passed on the message that photos of this one person in particular should not be used. On the other hand, you couldn't pay for this sort of publicity! It is a great chance to get new members and show people what our club is about. Since we are a group that is open to all-comers and whose meetings are held in a public building, and since it is an organisation that people are generally proud of belonging to, I would have thought there is nothing wrong with it being in the news.

If I had to do it again, I guess I either would decline the journalists' requests to profile our club, or at least get them to wait a week so I could contact people and ask everyone if they were okay with it. I was honestly astounded at the depth of hostility there was to being in this piece, and I feel like, as club president, I let people down. Obviously I'm hoping you will all chime in and say that you would have done the same thing and that everyone is reacting strangely, but if you want to say the opposite, knowing that I am an insensitive freak is probably helpful for my personal development too. Also any suggestions as to how to minimise fallout would be useful (I have already sent out an email of apology to the club).

20 Comments:

grace said...

Toastgraspers! *Dear* Geekman.

Hmm, maybe a warning at the previous meeting might have been ideal - but if the journos were introduced at the start, then presumably anybody who didn't like it had the opportunity to protest and/or leave.

Kind of ironic that a group for public-speaking should be publicity-shy, I don't really get that. I would have thought most people would be flattered to be profiled in the paper doing something like this!

StyleyGeek said...

Yeah, I wonder if the problem is that most members join because they are SCARED of public speaking, and so maybe a bit shy. Unfortunately I couldn't have warned them at the previous meeting, since the journos only contacted me last night. But I probably should have put them off to buy time to warn people. I just never would have thought...

Dr. Brazen Hussy said...

Sounds like a mistake I would have made too. It probably would have been best to get permission from the others or at least let them know ahead of time, which would mean making the journalists wait. Sorry you're the target of such hostility! Surely it will die down soon.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I probably would have done exactly the same thing -- and then I'd probably realize afterward that an e-mail letting them know what would be going on is a good idea.

I've had some press coverage of my debate team -- the problem is that the reporters were on really tight schedules, so next week might not have worked at all. I usually sent my team an e-mail, just so I'd be sure they'd be at practice and not wearing their "F-Authority" t-shirts..

Anastasia said...

it would *never* have occurred to me that anyone would have a problem with it. I would have done exactly what you did.

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

I would've done what you did as well (though also would have thought with hindsight that it would be better to have asked them about it first). It's surprising what the group's automatic reaction to journalism was, though - I would assume a two-page feature would be a good thing, but they must have assumed it could only be some sort of muckracking scandal-hunting project.

The History Enthusiast said...

I might've postponed the interview for a week, but I also wouldn't have expected it to be such a big deal. If they are always talking about needing publicity, they should have thanked you for taking the initiative.

EA said...

Here's where working with the confidentiality paranoia of health care comes in handy I guess...
I would have contacted the group to let them know what would be happening in the next meeting, and to invite discussion on the matter.

Sorry you've been so attacked, that is just no fun. It sounds like you are handling the fall-out beautifully.

physics*chick said...

Wow... that seems strange. While in hindsight, I suppose waiting a week would have been better, I'm almost certain I would have enthusiastically invited these "horrifying journalists" (those are "sarcastic" quotes) and assumed everyone would share my enthusiasm... especially from a group for public speaking.

I'm sure it will blow over, not really sure what you can do to help the situation.

shy speaker said...

ok. So when I did *toastgraspers* I certainly didn't want people to know about it! I didn't mind if they came of their own free will and I saw them there, but it was a private thing for me, and I wanted to chose when I told people, not have my photo plastered in the paper!

I think though a write up would be no problem. I think you probably should have warned people in your introduction of them, and asked that if people didn't want to be identified or their photo included to let the press know. It isn't that hard to avoid taking a photo of one person if the photographer knows! And your publicity officer can easily give quotes that don't include specific members.

Kelly said...

Hmm. I agree with the majority in that I would have done the same thing, optimally with some prior warning to the group even the day of the meeting.

I can appreciate what shy speaker said about wanting to keep "Toastgraspers" (heh) membership to yourself for a while - but just the same, it's not like you're a member of the small animal fetish club; there's nothing to be ashamed of here.

I'll also add that people that are that paranoid about photos and quotes should get the hell off the internet (including email), where it is very difficult to remain completely anonymous. (Present company excluded?) There is also some delicious irony here (as grace noted too) that a group focused on improving public speaking skills and improving confidence should shun publicity. This could have been a really positive experience for everyone who chose to participate, but the naysayer has brought down the vibe.

I think the irony and the edict about increasing publicity and membership are well worth pointing out to the group. You could also offer to have the journalists/photogs come back for another meeting if they needed more pictures.

Don't beat yourself up about this! :)

Cee said...

If a group wants publicity, I never would have thought that people would have a problem with journalists attending and taking photos. No wonder you were surprised at their reactions.

StyleyGeek said...

I'm relieved to hear that other people would have made the same mistake. At least I feel I learned something from the situation.

grace said...

If it's any help, someone once pointed out to me that crazies are great "joiners"! Maybe you just struck one of those.

post-doc said...

I wouldn't have thought to discuss the matter first (better late than never to contribute to the discussion, right?).

You and Geekman are welcome to one of my guest rooms, but it's an awfully long commute to work. Many sympathies on the upcoming move though.

Geeka said...

I would have probably done the same thing.

While I do understand that people get annoyed about getting ambushed with having people take pictures, there is the chance that people wouldn't have showed up if they had known in advance. Having a third of the real group would have looked bad, both for the photographer and for the group.

I think that you should use it as a learning exercise...i.e. you don't always have time to prepare when speaking (or having to interact) in public.

WhatLadder said...

Speaking as someone who is extremely publicity shy in RL, I am going against the grain of styleygeek massaging, and saying that, yes, you should have known to warn people. In fact, you should have had them sign releases to have their photos used so there would be no confusion.

People are shy about having their names and/or pictures in the paper for whole variety of legitimate reasons that aren't "crazy" or silly. I think it was extremely thoughtless of you not to make sure they clearly understood why the photos were being taken, and that they weren't asked for written permission.

StyleyGeek said...

I think there's two issues here, Whatladder: one is whether I should have done what I did, and I'm freely admitting that I shouldn't have. So I'm doing fine at the feeling bad for not warning people.

The other issue is whether I should feel extra stupid for not having KNOWN to warn people: whether this is something that is clear to everyone except me and whether everyone in the world except me usually gets people to sign releases or whatever as a matter of course when journalists do features on groups like this.

And judging by the majority response here, I would say that it isn't necessarily something that people generally know to do. So I'm not going to beat myself up about not knowing or not thinking, but just for not doing. Which kind of amounts to the same thing, anyway :)

Of course, as you suggest, maybe everyone is just "massaging me" and really thinks I'm an idiot who should have known better. I would like to think that my commentators have more integrity than that and would feel free to politely state their real views rather than what they think I would like them to say.

Also, I do agree that, while I find the club members' hostility to the whole thing surprising, that doesn't make them crazy, and that they might have legitimate reasons for not wanting to be in the paper.

JustMe said...

i would have done the exact same thing you did, and i'm not just trying to massage you. sounds like there was some confusion in the intros but this wouldn't have crossed my mind before. i feel like after reading this though i would tell everyone beforehand were it to come up... don't beat your self up, hindsight is 20/20.

liz said...

I would have done the EXACT same thing.