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The Blundering Herd

The beauty of important and famous people is that they make mistakes that we can learn from. Be they the CEO of a huge company, a disgraced former politician, the President of a country or a poster-boy athlete, the Blundering Herd provides us with ample enjoyment and learning opportunities.

Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz: The former Chairman, President and CEO of Autodesk took charge of the Internet giant in mid-January and has already put her personal stamp on the company with a series of Friday memos. In her latest tome, Bartz complained about leaks to the media, overuse of the word “silo” when describing business units and employees showing up late for meetings. The memo, according to reports and to Yahoo! employees I spoke to, was not entirely appreciated. “People were not happy with the tone,” one Yahooligan told me.

It’s always been my opinion that company-wide communications from the C-suite should be vetted by public relations people because CEOs and other top executives at big companies are often out of touch with how worker bees feel. New executives especially need to understand that they’re coming into a fully formed culture. Even if they want to change the culture they need to do so in stages. PR people can help with crafting internal communications messages and working with top executives to understand how they want to move a company forward. Remind the new CEO that PR is not only about getting ink.

Rod Blagojevich: It’s not every day that the Governor of Illinois is impeached – it just seems that way. “Blago” worked the media circuit following his impeachment and was seemingly willing to appear on any talk show. He popped up on the Late Show with David Letterman and was promptly skewered.

To his credit, Blagojevich took all that Letterman threw at him with good humor, and he even elicited some laughs of his own. The problem is that Blagojevich has been charged with a criminal offense, so all the time that he’s spending with the media is useless because it’s not going to sway a judge or jury. It’s time that would be better spent with his lawyers. In addition, Blagojevich may say something in an interview that will come back to haunt him in court. The former Governor said his media tour is about trying to present the truth and to protect his family, especially his young daughters. That’s understandable; however, the news cycle is so packed right now because of the economy and the new administration that Blagojevich should have taken the opportunity to melt into the background in silence.

President Barack Obama: The President said he “screwed up” by continuing to push Tom Daschle’s nomination for the Secretary of Health and Human Services post after the former Senator admitted that he did not pay all of his taxes. Daschle’s tax problems came after Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had his own tax issues, after New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson withdrew his name from consideration for the Commerce Secretary post due to a corruption investigation involving political donors, and hours before Nancy Killefer withdrew from consideration for the post of Chief Performance Officer after saying she had failed to pay unemployment compensation tax for a household employee.

It was refreshing to hear President Obama admit that he made a mistake, but how do you explain four mistakes involving virtually the same issue? Cabinet appointees are supposed to be examined with a fine-tooth comb to avoid situations such as those mentioned above. Companies need to remember this when they’re looking not just for new executives but any new employee. You never know what will come to light or when, and you need to be prepared. Public relations personnel can play a role in the vetting process by working with job candidates to explore their histories to ensure that they won’t bring shame on others down the road.

Michael Phelps: Fourteen career Olympic gold medals went up in smoke when a photo of Phelps taking a hit of marijuana late last year was published in a British tabloid. Phelps immediately apologized, admitted his mistake, and hightailed it out of Tampa Bay, where he was supposed to be shilling for sponsors. He’s not in trouble with any athletic organizations because he’s never tested positive for drugs. Moreover, marijuana is not a performance-enhancing drug and Phelps wasn’t in training. Still, he could face criminal charges in South Carolina, where the incident took place.

It’s not easy being Michael Phelps, and it’s difficult for most of us to understand what he goes through. That said, Phelps surely knows that he’s a celebrity and that his actions are closely watched. He put himself in a situation where he was doing something illicit and stupid, and he did it in front of a crowd of strangers with cellphone cameras, Facebook pages and Twittering thumbs. It’s still a mystery to me why highly compensated athletes do the things they do in public when they could do them at home or not at all, or, in some cases, afford to have someone else drive them home instead of getting behind the wheel drunk.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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