No, I’m not talking about the Super Bowl. Wish I was. I’m referring to those wonderful folks at guerilla marketing firm Interference Inc. You know, the ones who brought us last week’s Boston terrorism scare. In case you missed it, the story goes something like this: Turner Broadcasting hired Interference to help with the marketing effort for one of Turner’s Cartoon Network shows, Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Interference then hired two performance artists, Sean Stevens and Peter Berdovsky, to plant several of a box-type device with lights, in Boston and other cities including New York, Chicago and San Francisco by attaching them to bridges and road signs.
Ever on high alert since 9/11, continues the story, the good citizens of Boston, taking seriously authorities’ repeated admonitions to report suspicious activity, did just that. On January 31, police, firefighters and other first-responders went into high gear, blocking off large areas of the city where the devices were found and scaring and inconveniencing a lot of people. This cost a lot of money.
Of course, the politicians, from the Governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, to the Mayor of Boston, Thomas Menino, on down, who never tire of a good opportunity to express outrage, were all over it. Yet it wasn’t until the next day, Thursday, that Turner issued a statement explaining and apologizing six ways from Sunday. Thursday night, one of the two self-styled performance artists finally expressed regret, no doubt at the insistence of his lawyer who hopefully knows how much defendants’ attitudes influence judges’ and juries’ verdicts. Interference CEO Sam Ewen waited until Friday, February 2, to issue a statement. By the time you read this, everyone who’s supposed to will have been in proper supplicant mode for a few days.
Now both Turner and Interference are members of the communications business. So one would assume they would know more about how to communicate. But both of them missed something critical in this case. I’m not talking about the act itself. Stunts like this are staged all the time. I’m talking about the aftermath.
For example, what, in the immediate days after the incident, was Interference leader Ewen thinking? Based on reports, he went into hiding, shutting down his company website, locking the door to his New York office and remaining incommunicado. Did he not realize how poorly such behavior reflects on him and his company? Did he really need the PR firm hired to contain the damage to tell him this? Respectively, I guess not and I suppose so.
In addition, what planet were Messrs. Stevens and Berdovsky living on? After they were identified, they were arrested. You’d think with the threat of 5 years behind bars in a federal penitentiary staring down at them, they would have been duly chastened, but you would be wrong. Uh-uh. These two held a press conference mocking the whole affair and were photographed looking unbothered, with Mr. Berdovsky even doing a little end-zone type dance.
Many have risen to their defense, stating that they are being scapegoated, that the real offenders are the bigger boys on the block, Interference and Turner. There is probably some truth to that. These ideas don’t generally originate with the help, who in this case, were paid $300 each for their trouble. Of course, there is always the possibility they were all thinking, as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and finding the continuing uproar to be just a little bit irresistible.
Not being able to see what is so obvious to others is an old story of corporate misbehavior. The solution, also an old story, is not to hide from or deny mistakes, but to face up and apologize. And the sooner the better, because in today’s light-speed media environment, 12 hours later is already too late.
The actions by the players in this particular drama made them seem spoiled and immature, not the corporate image most of us strive for. Taking responsibility, being accountable, taking your licks and moving on. Also known as leadership.