Postscript: The Four Media Untouchables

Earlier this week, I discussed the “four media untouchables” – small children, the elderly, animals, and the disabled.

I offered an example from a former client, a water company executive who was about to turn off the water for a wheelchair-bound customer who was three years past due on his water bills. Despite being well within his rights to cut off the service, doing so might have created a P.R. nightmare for the executive. After all, the media would have presented the big, bad water company as the mean-spirited Goliath, whereas the wheelchair-bound man would be viewed as a sympathetic David.

My advice to the water company executive? Keep the water on. He might be well within his rights to cut it off, but doing so would potentially create a much bigger problem for the company.

A few readers wrote me, wondering how the executive could have handled the situation if he had decided to cut off the water anyway.

David wrote:

“It would not be abusive for the company to turn the guy’s water off; especially, since he owed it a ton of money, he refused to pay anything, and he refused to speak with the company…If I were that exec, I would have said something like, “My job is to protect profits. I can’t alone decide to have all the other customers of my company involuntarily subsidize a customer who refuses to pay his bill. Our company has established a bank account to receive donations to pay for service to this disabled customer. Anyone who wishes to donate to it may do so.”

That’s a reasonable start, but I’d be concerned that the executive saying that his “job is to protect profits” would only reinforce the perception of the unfeeling Goliath.

Ted wondered:

“What if the media took the opposite approach and covered the story as ‘company acting slothfully and wastefully?’ While decidedly better than David vs. Goliath, a quick second favorite story theme is the organization as bureaucratic, confused and lazy. For instance, the media could write that while other customers are nickel-and-dimed, this person is allowed to face no consequences. What message would that send to people who work hard each month to pay their bills, even when they are facing financial hardships?”

That’s an interesting thought, and I like the approach it suggests, since it would help the executive articulate his concerns in the context of his primary audience, his customers. Therefore, I might add the best parts of both answers, and try something like this:

“We have great concern for this man, which is why we have tried to contact him for three years. But it takes two sides to have a conversation, and he has refused to speak to us. In the end, we have an obligation to protect the rates that every other customer pays – and if we allow customers not to pay for years at a time, it forces us to raise rates for everyone else. We don’t think that’s fair. But we’d still like to help this man, so we’ve set up a private bank account for concerned members of the community to help him through their donations. I’ve started the account by personally donating $250. You can find more information about where to contribute on our website.”

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.