Once upon a time, I lived in Portland, Oregon where I did public relations for a local hospital.
The medical center was well-respected and almost always received positive news coverage. One day, however, a headline writer for The Oregonian newspaper hurriedly summarized a positive story with a less-than-positive choice of words. The story described how the hospital offered a signing bonus to recruit nurses during a severe nursing shortage. Instead of describing the bonus as an recruitment incentive, however, the headline writer used the word “bribe.” To his credit, he put quotes around the word to indicate its use as a colloquialism.
The hospital’s president (my boss) thought the newspaper was implying that he engaged in unethical, under-the-table transactions. He was enraged and immediately ordered me to write a letter to the editor expressing our indignation.
Though I disagreed with the newspaper’s use of the pejorative word, I thought a phone call would suffice. I believed we would be overreacting to send an official letter of reprimand. My boss, however, was not dissuaded and he insisted that a letter be written.
I tried to explain that the person who wrote the headline was neither the reporter nor the editor, and any perceived slight in the headline did not erode the positive relationship between our organizations. Again, my boss didn’t want to hear it. He still wanted me to write a letter.
Unable to persuade him otherwise, I wrote the draft of a venomous, hard-hitting letter. I even made the project bigger-than-usual by routing the letter to the members of our leadership team. Everyone found cathartic relief by allowing their red pens to flow freely as they edited my words. Each person seemed determined to outdo his or her teammate.
When everyone had weighed in, I took their collective comments and blended them into a second draft. Their rewriting fun continued for another round when I asked them to edit the revised version of the letter.
Finally, everyone seemed happy. We had a punchy letter that would let those darned journalists know they couldn’t kick sand in our face.
Years afterward as I reminesce about that project, two thoughts stand out in my mind. First, I remember how I followed my boss’s instructions very carefully. He directed me to write a letter to the editor, which I did. Second, I wonder if anyone ever realized that I was never instructed to actually mail the letter, which I did not.