How to Say “F*ck You” in Court: A PR Lesson

The scene at the 2008 fire. PHOTO: Justine Hunt / Boston Globe Staff

The scene at the 2008 fire. PHOTO: Justine Hunt / Boston Globe Staff

He stood a few feet away, head bowed. The judge asked me to step forward and I took my place at the podium. I looked at him for a moment as he stood next to his lawyer, hands clasped. I didn’t recognize him but the anger that had been smoldering in me for months felt familiar.

* * *

I knew these streets and just how fast I could drive given the snowy conditions. Early March in Boston could be treacherous, especially when given a little room after rush hour. I swung the car onto South Huntington, across the T tracks and gunned it.

Our CEO had already brought me up to speed when he called earlier. Over the past two years, my cell phone had become my lifeline to the 24-hour hospital. Many times it was the difference between alerting the media in real time rather than missing an opportunity that would grow stale by morning.

A few moments later I pulled into the parking lot and saw the red lights flickering against the building. The nearly 200 animals in our care were again sleeping in their cages. The few that had been evacuated had never left their doctors’ care. The fire was out and the chaos was over.

I parked around back and ran through the hospital entrance. Bill was waiting in the lobby and we walked through the security doors as he filled me in with the latest facts from Boston’s firefighters. Bill managed a crew of custodial staff as our building and grounds manager and he always made me feel small even though at just over six feet some considered me tall. He was a broad man who told tales of almost making the NFL if it wasn’t for a bad break and a bum knee.

Over and over I heard “fiah”, the softness of his South Shore accent combined with a deep baritone, giving him a sense of authority. I peppered him with questions, feeling my days as a reporter coming back out, and jotted down his responses. I knew the media would need a quote right away so I probed Bill to get the facts straight for me.

By the time I made it to the fourth floor I could smell the damp soot left behind by the Boston Fire Department. Little exchanges between Bill and the inspectors and I was allowed up one more floor to the archives. Most of the documents, photos, books, and medals collected since our founding more than 140 years ago had been stuffed in a small room at the end of the fifth floor. There were plans to show them off to the world in a few months, once we found the money for an exhibition.

The glass cases that housed our history lay cracked and waterlogged. Blackened film canisters sheltering gelatin-laden film didn’t stand a chance against the heat. Copies of Black Beauty, introduced to America by our founder, were singed but intact. As the inspectors prodded the walls, stacks of papers were pushed aside, scattering in flakes.

I took a few photos to send to the press and with Bill’s account of the fire firmly in place I made my way down to my office to write up my statement. It would need to be reviewed by several members of staff given the severity of the news. Thankfully they knew my routine and respected the request of responding to me ASAP. Within minutes the news was out and I returned to the scene.

The scene had worsened since my departure. A clean up crew proceeded to fill garbage bags with shovel-fulls of memorabilia. I asked them to proceed with care. Minutes later the shovels were leaning against the back wall. I spent the next few hours sifting through the mess for anything salvageable while I answered press requests, gave additional sound bites, and updated staff internally.

Over the next few weeks the calls from the media became less frequent. I put out fewer updates and we all moved on.

* * *

The papers were falling out of the windows and drifting on air currents to the ground four floors below. It had been nearly two years since we lost our archives and many of these documents were fortunately only billing records, though some more than 100 years old. I had seen a similar scene in a movie, I was certain of it just not sure which one. The fire had taken place during the early morning hours while the animals slept, recovering from surgeries or neglect.

In his office, Bill took me through the general timeline. His facts were certain and I scribbled them in my notepad. It was in stark contrast to the conversations we usually had in his office, peppered with real estate investments abroad and chest pumping, weekend warrior accomplishments. It was always tolerable though since I needed the information that he possessed.

When I visited the room, one floor above my office, I was greeted with that familiar smell. It hung in the air, a dampness that invades your clothes and stings your nostrils. It was lighter since the fire did not have as much time to grow before being extinguished but it was unnerving. This was the second fire since I came on board. I had heard of others over the years, before my time.

It had almost become routine even after only two fires on my watch. I would receive a call, speak with Bill and our CEO to gather as much information as possible, and issue a statement. Thankfully Bill had a close relationship with the BFD so my contact with them was welcome and informative.

Over the next few days, my reports to the media received the expected placement. The main theme being that this room was the farthest place on our campus from the animals.

* * *

The indictment came soon after I met with my CEO. He came around his desk and sat next to me. It was arson and the trail from the employee key card left little to speculation. The news made headlines soon after, I made sure of that.

After the indictment, it was decided I would draft the impact statement for the sentencing. Once approved the decision was made that I would deliver it in court. I gladly accepted.

* * *

When I looked at him, he wasn’t as tall as I remembered. Maybe it was the high ceilings of the courtroom or his slumped shoulders. His bravado was gone.

I did not look up as I read the statement. I later heard that Bill stared at me for a moment. My words were particularly damning. I had learned over the years how to turn a phrase and create sympathy for defenseless and injured animals through a balanced delivery at times empathetic or stern.

When I finished I looked at Bill but he was gazing down. He wasn’t the hero anymore. I wasn’t interested in what he knew.

No one at work pushed for jail time so the DA reluctantly cut a deal. Bill received a few years of probation and fines.

The anger I felt left me. The new feeling was pure and a thousand times lighter than the weight I carried with me for months. But it was cold.

* * *

I didn’t know whom I could trust for a while after that. Maybe it was my inner reporter that felt it most. He had been a source over the years and I had put forth his information as truth. I had never been that manipulated before and it hurt.

Years later and the feelings are still there, just softer. It took time but I trust sources again. I couldn’t let him take that away from me.

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