Sunday, May 15, 2011

PRom PRoposition PRovokes PRedictable PR PRoblems - A PRescription for Bad PRess!

     So, up in Connecticut, there's a teenage boy who asks a girl to the prom. The next thing you know the state legislature is involved and the story is making worldwide headlines! The torrent of negative press is a perfect storm of bungled public relations.

     James Tate is a senior at Shelton High School. Tate earned his 15 minutes of fame when he tried to impress his intended prom date. Rather than ask her out during a phone call or while riding on the school bus, James pasted up his proposal in 12" letters over the school's entrance.

     It read simply, "Sonali Rodrigues, will you go to prom with me? HMU  -Tate." HMU stands for Hit me Up.

     Sonali said yes. But Shelton High School said no.  Since posting the invitation was against school rules Tate was ordered to serve an in-school suspension. And at S.H.S anyone who is suspended after April 1st for any reason cannot attend the prom.

     People complained.  They said the punishment didn't fit the crime.

     The school's headmaster, Beth Smith, released a statement that said in part, "This regulation is reinforced over the course of the spring by daily ... announcements, posted signage in common areas of the building, and in classrooms, as well as information letters and automated phone messages to parents... These communications are intended to remind our students and parents of the high school expectations and consequences. This unfortunate situation is a result of one of those consequences." 

    Clearly, that poorly-worded statement reads like a desperate plea for negative media coverage.  But you have to admit, it's some first-rate gobbledygook.

     Members of the Connecticut state legislature began drafting legislation to help Tate out of his jam. Yes, they were talking about passing new LAWS because this school was enforcing a zero tolerance policy that sounded pretty dumb to a lot of people.

     According to a CNN report, "Calls to Shelton High School, the Connecticut State Department of Education and the Shelton school superintendent's office were not returned."

     Let me just say that stonewalling in the face of public outcry is always a good idea.

     A Facebook page popped up titled: Let-James-Tate-Go-to-the-Prom At last look 195,005 people liked this. Supporters started calling themselves "Team Tate". Meantime, the suddenly famous Tate was making appearances on the Today Show and Jimmy Kimmel's late night show.

     What went wrong: Instead of admitting that the school policy was a little stiff... instead of making an exception... instead of graciously responding to community concerns and seeking a workable solution- school administrators strictly adhered to their policy. And predictibly, they came off looking like humorless twits. 

     What went right: In the face of growing pressure, the headmaster announced that Tate would be allowed to attend his prom! He will now face some kind of alternative punishment. And in the future, penalties for rules violations will be decided on a case-by-case basis. Hallelujah! Common Sense prevails. Now school administrators don't look quite so silly.

     After her reversal, Headmaster Smith told reporters, "I never thought that such a decision would lead to international notoriety..." She thought wrong. 

     The Lesson: Boneheaded decisions are no longer limited by the city limits. Think it out before your misguided mistakes go viral- way, way viral.

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