My first lesson in public relations

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Public opinion matters. Perception matters.

This is a hard lesson for most politicians. The ones who think about it too much turn into finger-in-the-air, poll-watching ninnies.

But the ones who ignore it -- see Howard Dean, Trent Lott, Jesse Jackson and recently Attorney General Alberto Gonzales -- pay a heavy price.

They all discover that one misstep can overshadow a career of service.

It's tough, but it's true. In a democracy, public opinion and perception are what the executioner and guillotine were during the French Revolution.

For some reason this takes me back to the equally rough-and-tumble world of eighth-grade gym class. January, after Christmas break, was always time for wrestling at my school.

The boys were separated by weight, taught a few takedowns and told to have at it. It was probably my least favorite time of year. I was one of the smaller youths, and therefore I ate mat on most days.

But I did my best. Even as I lost more matches than I won, I avoided having my spine bent backward and getting my nose shoved somewhere it didn't belong -- victories in their own right.

Our wrestling coach, whose name I now forget, was a squat bald guy with legs like fire hydrants. He was pretty intense but didn't hassle those of us who clearly had no future in the sport.

There was one thing, though, he simply could not stand: screwing around. The slightest hint of inattention was met with laps, push-ups or some other physical punishment.

And like any group of 14-year-olds, we had a guy who liked to push the limits. That guy was Alex.

One day near the end of gym class, Alex made a discovery he'd quickly come to regret. The discovery was that in our gymnasium, which doubled as a basketball court, the scoreboard buzzer could be turned on with the push of a button. It was a mischief-maker's dream. While the rest of us were rolling on the mats, Alex snuck off and laid on the buzzer for what seemed like 20 seconds.

Coach went rigid with anger and made him run laps.

Then Alex did it again. Coach gave him some other punishment and screamed a strong recommendation about two inches from his face not to do it again.

Five minutes later ... buzzzzzzzzzzzzz. The coach slowly strode over to Alex, who was still beaming and grabbed him by the neck. He slammed him face down on the mat, pulled down his pants and put both of Alex's feet -- shoes and all -- pretzel-style inside his own underpants.


Coach calmly got up and told us gym class was over for the day. Alex rolled around on the ground like an upside-down turtle for a while. Tears streamed down his face, his nose bled a little. Finally someone helped him get free and he ran out of the gym.

It's not hard to imagine where it went from there. Parents complained, meetings were held and a couple of months later the coach, who by all accounts was a good guy, found himself out of a job.

The coach really hadn't done anything wrong. He set rules and expected them to be followed. But his act -- a teen's buttocks exposed, his face slammed to the ground -- was just too difficult to justify under the glare of public opinion.

It was a good crime and punishment lesson for me. It's not good enough to ask yourself if you're right or wrong, you've also got to ask, "how does this look?"

TJ Greaney is a staff reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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