Monday, June 11, 2018

Seeing mice - or smelling rats

A woman in her late twenties; smart, fairly articulate and seemingly rational, told a reporter she had bought a carton of fast food and found a mouse in it. Not a live one. One that was dead and presumably just a little cooked.

I say, presumably, because she no longer had it. She’d been advised to return it to the caterer’s head office for closer inspection and had brought this to light for all the right reasons; not for compensation, but to public-spiritedly warn others.

The reporter was not massively experienced but had all the right details in the right order: where the woman bought it, who served her, how she had opened the carton and “almost fainted” when she saw what was in there, returned to the counter, how the sales staff had “reeled in horror” at the sight and how their line manager had followed procedures by instantly sealing it in true forensic fashion and sending it off.

The story had been written and the company was approached for a comment to be added in due course.

All fairly straightforward and good local paper fodder; national even, had the girl not been a £25,000-a-year sales exec in High Street clothes but a power-dressed legal exec in the Square Mile and as photogenic as she was quoto-genic.

. . . and had she turned up with the said roasted rodent, or (you’d imagine, wouldn’t you) a few photographs snapped on the mobile before she handed it back.

So what did the sub do (don’t know why I’m talking in the third person, by the way. It’s obvious it was me keeping my hand in with a shift or two, but nonetheless…)

He called up the salesgirl himself (Easy. She worked in the office downstairs) and established: That it was a mouse: “oh yes, I think I know one when I see one. I hate them. It was too small to be a rat but it had eyes and ears . . . of course it was a mouse.”

That someone else had seen it: “The girl behind the counter and her boss. They both said OMG. That’s disgusting.”

That they would confirm that – and I mean, for example, the fortysomething boss going on the record and saying something like: “It was clearly dead but intact. It had legs and a tail. I put gloves on and examined it closely before putting it back. I put this in my report to head office.”

That the background had been explored properly: “We do get the odd one in occasionally but environmental services are happy our pest control measures are correct.”

The last two were wishful thinking and hadn’t been explored. Not through sloppiness particularly but because this was a mere customer says this, firm says that, mystery surrounds , what do we know? kind of story. Not an investigation. No-one was out to expose, just to report an incident.

The story was then injected with more circumspection than it had mouse droppings and more balance than a mouse-free diet. The editor was urged to keep it offline until the company had responded. Happily they did, after a follow-up call expanding on the request for a comment but with a more targeted line: Did the shop manager do the right thing? Have the right people at the right levels of authority seen it? And are you closing the shop and investigating properly?

They came back 20 minutes later with a measured and beautifully crafted response, expressing concern that the woman had suffered such a shock and thanking her for her vigilance. And they attached a photograph clearly showing a sizeable but unfortunate mass of interestingly shaped batter that, at another time, may have ended up on an Esther Rantzen show that had fun getting people’s reactions to turnips shaped like testicles and the like. But it was not a mouse. Any more than a pork scratching is a pig.

Unless, of course, someone very clever in the kitchen had cooked up a convenient cover story? Easy way to tell.

The woman was shown the picture and asked was that it? Surely, that would produce one of two responses. Either - “No. I said it had a tail and legs. It was clearly a mouse. That’s something odd scraped out of the deep-fryer.” Or – “Yes! Are you saying that isn’t a mouse? I don’t believe it. Look at it. What else is it?”

In the event it was neither. But it was one that, in relating this in greater detail to media students this week, I hoped demonstrated something about human behaviour, congnitive dissonance if you will, and the importance of circumspection.

“It could be. It was horrible. I didn’t exactly want to look too closely.”

Journalism 0, PR 1.

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