Over the course of my long career, both in journalism and public relations, I’ve had some very memorable experiences, some simply awful, others extremely positive. Someday I swear I’m going to write a book.
But until I get around to the book, I’ll offer a few of these stories on the Bridgebuzz blog. My one restriction is client confidentiality. I can’t reveal the names of the clients involved in these memorable experiences.
I’ll start with an interesting, but difficult and strange experience I had in 1987 while living in Tokyo and working at a Japanese public relations agency. One of my clients, an American company, had hired my agency for PR services in Japan to help launch a product line. During the most feverish stage of the launch preparations, I received a call from the client’s New York City headquarters. I was told the company was a sponsor of an annual award honoring one individual for contributions to world peace, and, in a matter of days, that year's award would be given to a Japanese philanthropist. Our client asked us to provide a phone and desk for a few days to an executive of a non-profit organization that was involved in organizing the award presentation. No problem, I said.
A few days later, the non-profit executive showed up at our office. When I spoke to him, it was very clear that his expectations of how our agency would help were totally different from ours. He wasn’t really looking for an office to work from while in Japan. He expected us to handle PR for the award presentation. He asked me to contact the U.S. embassy, where he said the award ceremony would take place, work with the embassy staff on PR for the event, and request that the U.S. Ambassador present the award. He made it clear that his organization had no budget to pay our agency and said our client told him we would help. He gave me the name of the philanthropist, but while he may have been famous in Japan, I had never heard of him.
This project would obviously be a lot of work and there was almost no lead time. I immediately called our client in New York and explained that we were quite surprised to be asked to handle PR for the award presentation. I said we were very busy preparing for the launch of the company’s new product line, and didn’t want to take on this extra work at such a crucial time. We spoke about budget, but the staff we were working said they weren't aware of the financial arrangements and would have to check. They came back with a direct message from the CEO, asking us to do whatever was necessary to support the non-profit executive. But he hadn't said a word about paying us.
I told the agency’s president and top executives that our short-term office visitor was looking for a lot more than just a desk and a phone, and explained what we were being asked to do. When they heard who the award recipient would be, their reaction was a shocker. They were very upset, indignant and united in their refusal to cooperate.
They told me the honoree was indeed a big philanthropist, but that he was also a notorious former war criminal. Furthermore, they said he had become a multi-billionaire from very shady activities. They predicted the Japanese media would not want to cover the presentation of this peace prize. Evidently the honoree was a total pariah in Japanese society. Nobody wanted to have anything to do with him.
I said I would speak to the American embassy and see if they would take this over since it was taking place there. I called the embassy staff and discovered that they, also, had just heard about this award ceremony, and although they were obligated to host the event, their resources were very strained. The blunt message was that they were no happier than we were about this project, and told me we would have to do the PR, whether we wanted to or not. I talked to our president and we concluded it would be very difficult to refuse to help, since the American Embassy had practically commanded us to do the work and our client would be very unhappy if we didn't help. So, with my agency colleagues visibly unhappy, we launched into the work we were asked to do.
The embassy staff said there was only space for a limited number of media at the ceremony (that was a relief - the less media we would have to approach, the better). One of our media relations account executives was assigned to invite relevant journalists. After speaking to journalists one after the other, he told me he was having great difficulty getting any media to attend. One reporter from a large daily paper had told him, “Please, ask me anything else, but don’t ask me to do this!” After a considerable number of hours on media outreach, he was (just barely) able to scrape together a few journalists.
On the day of the award presentation, the agency AE and I went to the U.S. Embassy. There I met, for the first time, the philanthropist honoree. He was in his late 80s, and was known to be extremely conservative. (He had a reputation for being an ultra-right-winger.) His wife was with him. Both wore traditional Japanese clothing – kimono for her and the male version of the kimono for him.
By the way, I was about eight months pregnant at the time. Since most women in Japan stopped working when they became pregnant, the sight of a very pregnant business woman was a rarity then. When I was introduced to the honoree, he gave me a look of severe disapproval and disgust, turned away from me immediately and whispered something to his wife, who also looked at me with disapproval.
The ceremony was led by a member of the embassy staff, since the ambassador had made sure to be busy at the time. A small statue of one of the world’s most famous advocates for peace and non-violence was the symbolic representation of the peace prize and was presented by the American diplomat to the philanthropist. When he received the statue, the philanthropist put it on a chair in front of him, bowed twice to the statue, then clapped his hands twice, and after a few moments, repeated the bowing and clapping. This ritual, traditional for offering a prayer at a Shinto shrine, seemed quite odd. It was very strange to me to see someone bowing and praying to a little statue.
After the ceremony, the philanthropist and his wife took off in their limo, the journalists packed up and left and we agency staff thanked the embassy on behalf of our American client for taking on the hosting roll, and breathed a sigh of relief that it was over.
As my colleagues predicted, the Japanese media coverage was very limited. However, one of the journalists who read about the award was a foreign correspondent from UPI, an American syndicated news service that competes with the Associated Press (AP). He wrote a story which appeared in many U.S. newspapers. The headline used the term “gambling billionaire.” The first sentence of the story referred to the philanthropist as a “war crimes suspect.” This was obviously not the kind of publicity our client expected.
Looking back at this, after 18 years as the owner of my own public relations agency, I know I would have handled the situation differently if I had the experience then that I have now. I would have taken the same stance the agency’s management did, that we simply would not take on this assignment, but my reason was that we shouldn’t do work without being paid. And I would have told the American Embassy that we could not and would not get involved with this project. We shouldn’t have felt obliged to do take on work, just because the U.S. Embassy told us we had to!
[Illustration: Elembis, WikiMedia Commons]