PR Parables : When the reporter’s nephew is a guest too

Starting this month, PRmoment India will feature ‘PR Parables’; a monthly column by senior corporate communications professional, Moushumi Dutt. She will share experiences and incidents from her two -decade PR and communications journey. Dutt says, “Each experience has had its uniqueshare of joy, anger, suspense, trepidation, admiration, diffidence .. you get the drift. But what is unique and common to every single experience is the residual learning impact.”

Read on.

This story is about a journalist who was invited by a Silicon Valley company to attend an annual event in California.

This was way back when media visits were not disparaged as ‘junkets’, and matchmaking the right journalist with the event theme was a well thought through exercise. Trips outside the country were also not as frequent then as they are now. This was thus an exercise that was much planned and handled with care and caution.

So, when I got an opportunity to manage and handle my first international media trip--for a Silicon Valley event—I was nervous, diffident and overwhelmed by the responsibility and the credibility at stake.  

This media trip was for a technology and science event, a global event with participants from all over the world. So it was important to ensure that ‘match-making’ was perfect. After weeks of working back and forth, I had a shortlist of 5 journalists, and we had to pick two.

This story is about one of the two journos we picked. 

The next steps were a flurry of activities. The US visa was not “VFS-ed” in those years, and most cities didn’t have a US visa office. From the southern cities, you had to go to the US consulate in Chennai for submission of passports and verification of travel papers. 

One of the journalist we had invited to attend needed to apply  for a US visa, and had to make this trip to Chennai to process his application for his US visa. Little did I realise at that time that his little trip to Chennai would end up being so educational for me. 

The local flight and stay for this journalist was done: we had made the booking for one night in one of the five star hotels close to the US consulate in Chennai. The journalist appeared for his visa interview and got back to Bengaluru the next day. All good.

But this is where this story takes a turn…and the point from where I sort of lost the plot and the courage to question and speak up. 

Nearly two weeks after this visit to Chennai was made, one day I received a meeting request from my boss titled “confidential meeting”. I had no inkling of what was to come and no reason to worry either.

I walked in to the room, and saw a worried-looking boss. He asked me if I knew the journalist who had gone to Chennai. I replied letting him know that while I didn’t know him personally, but I could vouch for him as a reputed senior journalist who did big breaking stories in his publication. 

And then my always-calm-and-composed boss threw a bunch of papers at me and asked: “Okay, so what answer should I give finance?”

I picked up the papers nervously, and saw that these were hotel bills sent to the company for clearance. Specifically, for the one-night stay of the journalist who had been to Chennai for his US visa. To my disbelief, I was looking at a hotel bill for over Rs 60,000 for one night.

Rs 60,000 for one hotel night, 15 years ago? Do the math. There had to be a mistake.

“So find out what’s this is about, speak to the hotel,” my boss said, back to his calm self, and walked out of the room, leaving me holding the bills. Where do I start? Should I call up the hotel, or the journalist?

I decided to call up the hotel first, hoping to find a profusely apologetic accounts staffer who would tell me that I had the wrong bill. That wasn’t to be. The bill was correct. “Madam, the guest has dinner bills, room stay charge, chocolates, soft drinks and alcohol from the mini bar.”

Okay, but even so, Rs 60,000? “It was the complete mini bar,” she explained.

I was left in a daze. What do I do next?

I finally picked up the phone and called our guest, who by now more than ever reminded me of the key character of ‘Dunston Checks In’.

I call him up and after some humming and hawing, I asked him about his Chennai trip and then hesitatingly told him that we have received a bill from the hotel for his stay in Chennai.

I nearly choked in trying to muster up enough courage and prepared to be bold and tell him that this was not on and that my company was upset with him, etc. Finally I got started and my voice quivered and I told him about the hotel bill I was holding, for his one night stay in Chennai. 

The journo didn’t flinch. He didn’t choke. He didn’t hesitate.

“Actually, my nephew had come over to meet me,” he said. ”While I was busy with my paperwork, he went ahead and had the chocolates and other stuff”. 

His story done, he hurriedly kept the phone down citing some deadline.

The bill was finally cleared by my organisation. But what never got cleared was my guilt of not confronting the journalist, nor escalating it to his boss.

I had let him off the hook too easily. I shouldn’t have. You should never too.

My learning was to never be so forgiving, even if the organization you’re working for stretches its rules to let you. Or to never be so diffident that you end up compromising your reputation.

That day, that moment, I lacked the courage to confront someone who clearly overstepped his boundaries of professional civility and rights. I wish I had. But what is this life without mistakes and regrets, and without learning from them.

Moushumi Dutt is a senior corporate communications professional  

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