Beware the Uncovered Backside (Don't Try These at Work)
As a seven-year veteran in agency PR (I use veteran because I feel comparisons to war are appropriate), I have made quite a few observations about the people I've worked with. Since an elaborate categorization complete with genus and subspecies is beyond the scope of this piece (although completely doable, trust me), I will simplify matters by narrowing it down to two basic groups -- those who play by the rules and those who "deviate," shall we say. I'm not talking high treason or theft here. Rather, these folks manage to bend, twist, and meld the rules just enough to ensure posterior coverage at all times … the behavior version of a large balloon animal, allowing them to float above all reproach. Now, I've always considered myself in the former group, though I'm no angel. I once sent a co-worker a Christmas card with an elaborate drawing of a nativity scene, with everyone in our division drawn in a different role. A client was the baby Jesus (naturally), and the division head was the angel on top of the manger -- a judgment call based on rank, not personality, trust me. But I digress. I've worked with the cream of the crop of butt-coverers, and their behavior, though at times troubling or infuriating, has never failed to entertain (especially when I was not managing them). And you actually can learn by watching them. You learn what not to do. (Disclaimer): I in no way endorse or applaud the following behaviors. Remember, I'm merely an observer. You newbies should know that the people I'm referring to are professionals: Their casual yet brilliant rump coverage, no matter what the situation, is sheer poetry in motion. (Note that the smaller the agency is, the harder these are to pull off. The size of the person's rump is irrelevant.)
Top Ten Ways to Cover Your Keister in a PR Agency
10. "My assistant: Was supposed to send it out last night, Assured me it would be done by 5, Lost the file," etc. You get the idea. The fact that she has no assistant will never deter the professional tush-coverer. This tactic is best used on those, like clients, vendors, and spokespeople, who don't work in your office and will thus buy that you deserve an assistant.
9. "I thought person X was handling that." Blaming others may seem obvious or amateurish, but, trust me, there's an art to it. It's like Survivor. Think about who's already close to being voted off. Who has a rep as a screw-up? If you're lucky enough to have an absent-minded boss with short-term memory issues, all the better. Then there's the slight deviation on this theme:
8. "Person X was handling that," person X having either a) just been fired or b) just quit, though a) is always preferable. What sheer perfection in a tail-covering technique: The blamee is now unpopular and no longer around. No one wants to talk to her ever again. Proof will be difficult to obtain, and, swamped and tired, your victim will be all too willing to believe you. She will probably respond with a disgusted yet knowing, "Ohhhhhhhhhhhh," followed by an eye roll.
7. "No, I didn't get that email/voicemail/fax. When did you send it?" This causes the sender to immediately question herself, and thus works best on those with low self-esteem. Can she be sure she didn't misdial or get just one letter wrong in your last name? She has been under a lot of stress lately. Then there's the alternate:
6. "My email/voicemail/fax has been acting up." Like number 10, this works best when dealing with parties outside the firm, like clients in another state or, better yet, country.
5. "I told the vendor to be sure and do that! Wow, they've really been screwing up lately. Let's re-think our options next time." Sorry to unveil this dark secret, but PR people hate vendors. We make fun of them behind their backs and make faces during their conference calls. We only use them because we don't have the manpower or time to do the job ourselves, and we don't trust them to do a good job (so we send account reps on VNR shoots and SMTs). Thus, the inherent brilliance of the blame-the-vendor tactic -- the need to convince your boss of vendor incompetence doesn't exist.
4. "I'm proofing this release/memo/letter for person Y." A great answer when your boss asks "What are you doing?" and you weren't doing jack (or doing something that starts with jack). Make sure person Y is well-respected and you're home free. Not only does it count as real work, it showcases your willingness to help a co-worker on an account you don't normally work on. And, since your boss doesn't work on it either, she'll be none the wiser. (Note: You'll need an old memo or release as a prop. The professionals keep a small file of them handy).
3. "I got all the voice mails. I'll be sure to follow up." Striking out while pitching is only good in baseball. This clever ditty will at least buy you some time if you've had a bad day or just didn't feel like making the calls. Let's face it, sane people do not enjoy pitching. The only thing that could make pitching worse would be if you had to call the reporters at home during dinnertime.
2. "(Insert name of senior person here) is freaking out." Whether dealing with attitudinal vendors, spokespeople, or colleagues whose good side you want to stay on, this line keeps you in the "good guy" role while you chastise or pressure them. Sounding a bit frazzled helps; for example: "I know this is the seventh time I've called you about this mat release, but I need it in an hour. My boss is freaking out."
1. "Let's do a survey. The (women's, men's, consumer, pets', etc.) publications will eat it up." A tried and true way to doze off, daydream or mentally update your resume during a brainstorm and still sound smart and eager, this one never fails. First, reporters love surveys, because even a chimp could compile a story based on one; second, it's a cheap way to get coverage, which clients love; last, what product or service doesn't lend itself to one? Think about it. The truly gifted can use all of the above in a single work day and still leave by 6:00, while the rest of us slave away and miss Friends for the third week in a row. Say what you want, but one thing is for sure. The seasoned office can-coverer is no dummy.