Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What would you do with $$

Newspapers can right the wrongs. A journalist gets a call from an angry member of the public or a whistleblower (usually because the person hasn't received "justice" from an organization or government agency) and the battle is under way.

Sometimes, no, check that, most times these stories engage public relations professionals.

Case in point with today's Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (one of my favs). His column focused on a homeless vet who found a wad of cash (nearly $1,000), turned it in to authorities (LA's bus agency) and was hoping to claim it after the 30-day waiting period.

Of course, these stories only appear because things didn't go according to plan or logic.

The actual bus agency policy, as Lopez found out, does not return found money to the finder if no one else claims it. Lopez, who has a special place for homeless (remember "The Soloist"?), pursued this story with the intent of helping the homeless vet. Had he been on a mission to discredit the bus agency, this story could have turned out a lot worse for the agency.

Lopez' pursuits eventually took him to Marc Littman, a PR pro in the executive offices of the bus agency. Littman is a true veteran of managing many significant stories at one of the nation's largest transit agencies. In this case, Littman apparently realized this story needs his boss' attention.

As one might imagine, public agency policies occasionally defy logic. (I know, I worked a public agency). If what Lopez wrote was true, the reasons behind the found-cash/don't return policy were right up there is the head-scratching stratosphere.

Whether through PR counsel or his own calculations, the bus agency CEO did the right thing. He returned the found money to the homeless vet and vowed to change the policy because it didn't make sense to not reward honesty.

PR pros know this was the right choice. They would almost universally have counseled this decision in this direction.

However, the story also points to another issue at the bus agency: Internal communications. Again, if Lopez was on a mission, he really could have blasted the bus agency for not making sure their employees know policy. A front-line customer service representative thought the original policy was to give the money back to the finder. Hopefully, the communications staff at the bus agency will make sure the word on the new policy is clearly articulated, reaches all critical staff and is clearly understood by all who deal with the public.

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