Fact is much stranger than fiction

It’s hard to make this stuff up.

Recent public relations happenings in the real world are better than really good fiction.

For aspiring public relations professionals and students ready to jump into a practitioner role, we need look no further than former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s behavior and Olympic hero Michael Phelps’ bong hit to find some very good lessons in public relations.

First, there’s a lot to be said about allowing your handlers to handle you. Obviously, the now defunct governor of Illinois was operating on his own, without regard to what his lawyers said or his PR people prophesized. Then there’s Mike’s mistake: number two on the three-strikes-you’re-out path (the first being his underage DUI). He must be listening to his PR people. He responded to the blow up with speed, grace and heartfelt apologies.

Obviously, one strategy works better than the other. Blago is now unemployed, while Phelps may be able to keep most of his endorsements. Simply put, Phelps wins while the other one files for unemployment.

These recent media events point out a very important rule: Perception equals reality. The perception while listening to a few “select” portions of Blagojevich’s f-bomb tirades on the phone is one of disgust and outrage. He sounds guilty based upon what we hear. But his contention is that once you hear the whole tape, he will sound like a champion of Champaign, Illinois, or a victim of some plot against politicians. He’s fighting an uphill battle. Perceptions have already been formed, and the U.S. District Attorney got out of the gate fast and hard, assisting us with forming immediate perceptions.

Blago can argue the facts all he wants. That case was closed on the initial sound bites and the perceptions most of us formed.

On the other hand, Phelps has a chance to repair the collateral damage. He leveraged what he has, the good will of the American people, his youthful arrogance and innocence and, of course, his quick and decisive delivery of a concise apology to patch up the holes. The perception of Phelps making up for lost youth by getting a bit crazy now (while he’s not soaking for seven hours a day) is one the public can understand. But like Blagojevich, someone did capture his slip for posterity, and that visual is hard to overcome.

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