It was Phineas T. Barnum, the 19th Century American showman, circus owner and politician who is reported to have once said that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Whatever the origin of this phrase, it is almost certainly rooted in Oscar Wilde’s earlier expression that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.
Fast forward to 10:35am on 8 October 2019 and an otherwise ordinary day was interrupted by a flurry of emails from professional friends and colleagues from all around the world. The notifications on my phone were relentless.
A few minutes earlier, at precisely 10:31am, an email from our Communications Office had been sent to parents in our Middle School - a simple health alert informing them that there was an outbreak of lice and recommending treatment where necessary.
By 11:00am we were facing the fact that an email intended for a couple of hundred people had mistakenly been sent (for technical reasons that are too long to explain and not relevant to the story) to around twenty thousand parents, students, alumni, friends, suppliers, partners, and donors.
We were shocked and only beginning to understand how it would have happened, not to mention immediately considering the GDPR implications of the situation that we now found ourselves to be in. Logging the data breach, mitigating the risk of this occurring again, apologising to everyone who had wrongly received the email in the first place, working with the team to understand what actually had happened… this was no longer an ordinary day.
All of us who work in communications make mistakes. Some go unnoticed, some go to twenty thousand people in almost every country on earth. Despite our state-of-the-art systems, policies, and protocols, we are just pushing out too much and too quickly, so we cannot help but slip up every now and again.
The fact is, however, at 10:31 on 8 October 2019, a lot of people were looking at their phones and staring at their screens and thinking about a school that is located in a small corner of Brussels.
And, inevitably, the responses started to flow.
Expressions of frustration and questions about how this could have happened; forgiving notes from families who told us that it helped them remember the good old days when they were a part of our community; an email from someone who said it had prompted them to make their donation to our annual fund; a message from a Head of School far away who was just pleased to know that we have lice too.
We won’t be making this particular mistake again. But we will make others. It’s the inevitability of the business we are in.
But this will go down as perhaps our most unlikely engagement campaign.