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.
“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.
“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.
Crisis management is really risk management, and I think you just need to have an answer ready for every scenario that may surface after you have made your decision. Every choice contains a risk of raising someone’s ire. I still agree–leaving water on is the best choice. I believe very strongly in the four untouchables. I like the idea of setting up a fund–maybe one that people can contribute to regularly on their monthly bills that helps people like this in need.
When I was in the local telephone business we had a city that failed to pay its utility bills after several months.
The other utilities were willing to give them a pass for fear of negative publicity.
My response was we were simply treating the city the way we would any other customer.
The money line: “Why should the city be treated any differently than our loyal customers who pay their phone bills each month?”
The feedback we received from customers was very positive.
I feel honored that one of my replies made it into a future item.
In the original article, you said that you had changed the names (and details) to protect the innocent. I don’t expect you to reveal that information. However, I was wondering whether the executive took your advice. If not, how did he handle the situation?
BTW, I wonder how many other services this guy was/is getting for free? I saw an older guy in a wheelchair at a convenience store (here in KC). He said, “I’m a veteran.” I said, “Thank you for your service.” He said, “Are you going to buy my beer for me?” I said, “Can’t you get into the store?” He said, “No, I need you to pay for it.” I said, “Why would I do that?” He said, “Because I’m a veteran and I’m in this wheelchair because of it.” I politely declined.
As a group and on the whole, people with disabilities want to be seen as capable contributors to society, not a drain on it. Perhaps by crafting wording regarding the company’s respect for and valuing of its customers with disabilities, this particular customer could be shown as the antithesis, without saying a negative word about him. While “the disabled” may be an “untouchable” to the media, this doesn’t mean they are not harmed by the media’s portrayal of them as victims. The very term “the disabled” is offensive to people with disabilities, as is “handicapped” (references a beggar with cap-in-hand), “retarded,” etc. Others with disabilities may not want to be lumped together with this man, and speak out about it on behalf of the company.
Thank you very much for your insightful comment. You make a great point, that the water company could have referenced its many responsible customers with disabilities as a way of marking a contrast with the one non-paying customer.
Regarding terminology, I knew that “handicapped” and “retarded” were long out-of-favor, but I didn’t realize that “disabled” was also considered offensive to some. What is the preferred language today?
This may seem like a minor distinction, but it’s an important one if you want your messaging to be seen favorably by most people with disabilities and those close to them.
For almost 25 years, the reigning principle among the disability community has been that they would like to be seen as “people first.” This came about as a response to terms commonly used that dehumanized them or treated them as “less than” full people.
While it’s a bit more cumbersome in the English language, this means message wording should be “persons with disabilities” rather than “the disabled.” Other examples: “person with a stutter” v. “stutterer,” “man with paraplegia” v. “paraplegic.” Notice I used a plain “with” instead of “suffers from” or “challenged by.” Stay neutral in your descriptors.
Also, instead of “wheelchair-bound” (which hearkens to a kind of slavery) they prefer “person who uses a wheelchair.” A wheelchair is their means to mobility, not shackles. Likewise, “Handicapped” parking and bathrooms offend this demographic – use “Accessible” when describing and marking parking and bathrooms instead.
A few groups eschew this language structure, namely the deaf and blind communities, so do your homework there on preferred language. The autism community is currently split on the question.
They may seem small distinctions, but go a long way in communicating respect and dignity to a large and growing group of Americans. Google “people-first language” for more pointers on better messaging.
Once again, just as Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” Hope this is helpful to at least one of your many devoted readers, of which I am one!
Thanks for your always-useful posts. It’s my favorite blog to read!
Thank you so much for the thoughtful reply and for teaching me (and my readers) something in the process!
What you wrote makes a lot of sense. I can understand why a person who uses a wheelchair would bristle at “wheelchair-bound,” and I will calibrate my language more carefully in future posts on the matter.
It’s interesting that you brought up the blind and deaf communities. My mother taught blind children for about 30 years. At least they were referred to as “blind” when she began. Now, most people seem to refer to people who can’t see as “visually impaired.” It’s fascinating to observe how language changes over time.
Along the same lines, when I was in grade school in the early 1980s, my mother helped launch a program in my local public school called “Understanding Handicaps.” It was a sensitive program that taught fourth graders what life was like for people in a wheelchair, people who couldn’t see, people who couldn’t hear, etc. But I imagine it would never be called “Understanding Handicaps” today, and would likely be called “Understanding Disabilities,” or something similar.
Thanks again, and thanks especially for your kind words about the blog!