Terry Prone: Ireland loves a good downfall if the fallen has got a big personality

The downfall isn’t seen as a once-off but as an exemplar: an indication of a wider, longer-standing problem.
Terry Prone: Ireland loves a good downfall if the fallen has got a big personality

PR man Declan Kelly: The story is complicated by the fact that he was, effectively, working at this event.

When the story of Declan Kelly misbehaving drunkenly at a fundraiser involving stars such as Beyoncé emerged on Thursday, I was asked by media outlets how I’d advise him in this crisis. It’s not that complicated, because Kelly’s offence was unilateral. It wasn’t entangled with a client’s interests and therefore he can take corrective action all on his own.

The concentric circles model applies. Whoever is most directly offended goes in the first circle — in this instance, the people he misbehaved towards. Next circle might be the organisers of the event. Outside that circle, his colleagues and staff. But, I hear you say, what about his family? That’s the great thing about the concentric circles model I developed to help address crises; it causes corporate and individual heart-searching and establishes the real values of an individual or company. It also delays action, which is good in a crisis because immediate action tends to be thoughtless and instinctive — consider the initial response to his own misbehaviour of the UK’s Minister for Health, which more or less justified Boris Johnson’s earlier profane view of Matt Hancock.

The concentric circles model stops even a big ego from concentrating on themselves, forcing them to look first at their responsibility towards those they have offended or injured. It also prevents generalised, ergo meaningless, apologies. Part of the AA process is to get recovering alcoholics to go personally to those they damaged when drinking. That’s tough. It’s not PR. It’s just the right thing to do, especially since it cedes control to the victims. If you groped someone at a reception and subsequently go to them in person to grovel over what you did, at that moment, you cede the initiative to them. They can tell the world about the offence and apology. All you can do is hope they don’t. It’s their call.

As recently as a couple of decades ago, an extremely rich, extremely successful and extremely connected guy behaving badly at an event would have faced a radically different scenario. It might not have done him a bit of damage, especially if it happened in Ireland. Merciful amnesia has descended on precisely how alcohol informed the behaviour of the well-off and influential and how easily it was forgiven and covered up.

‘He likes his pint,’ was one of the phrases at the time used to cover everything from binge-drinking to dawn-to-dusk alcohol ingestion, plus the questionable behaviours associated with both. Alcohol simultaneously caused and excused that behaviour. Even in court. One of the reasons for that dual permission and exculpation was the widespread view that drink made perfectly decent people behave in untypical ways.

That other phrase, in vino veritas, may have occurred to wives and children as a heavy, if ill-aimed, fist connected with their teeth or eyes, but the overwhelming belief was that alcohol had a life of its own and almost forced drinkers into imbibing, and that the resulting chaos could be blamed on the alcohol, not the
man. Interestingly, it was also never blamed on the distillery.
The view was that alcohol sprang, fully matured, out of nowhere
and you couldn’t blame the lads for having good jobs making it. If a woman who had been mauled or worse were to complain, she would have it explained to her that she contributed to her hard times by what she wore, the lateness of the hour when she should have been tucked up in her bed at home and by having had a fair few drinks herself.

Alcohol has shifted its position in public thinking, here and overseas. Public drunkenness happens, but more often among the young, and it’s assumed to be pretty evenly shared among genders. Famous people being carried out of celeb events now leads to shaming photographs in tabloids. The Kelly issue is complicated by the fact that he was, effectively, working at this event. It’s always worth considering a rule, for event management, fundraising and PR companies. Everybody from the CEO to the greeter with the clipboard should sign up to this double-sided rule: Don’t eat anything containing garlic for two days before the event. Don’t drink alcohol on the day of the event or at the event. Nobody needs to know. Just fill the champagne flute with ginger ale.

It took quite a while, in media terms, for this story to break. Time is a great asset in this kind of situation. An interval provides the person at the centre of the episode the chance to sober up, get over the hangover, assess the scale of the damage and work out the reparative actions required.

Declan Kelly was lucky, in that regard. He was less lucky when General Motors, one of his big clients, decided to become punitive and righteous. General Motors would no doubt say that in removing their custom from Kelly’s US company they were vindicating their cathedral of values and would no doubt also relish the coverage noting their withdrawal of their business. An advertising budget can be as powerful an instrument of punishment, today, as was being ‘read from the pulpit’ was in the past.

So General Motors, that bastion of high standards, sobriety and respect for the famous, crafted a red letter and stuck it, not only on an individual but also on his blameless employees. GM will spend the next few weeks basking in praise for their courage, of which none was required, and basking also in the attention of consultancies eager to grab a lucrative contract.

Reading the coverage of the Kelly episode is to be struck by an underlying assumption that he deserved whatever he got because of his personality. Ireland loves a good downfall, particularly if the fallen has a big personality and a big success story to match. The downfall isn’t seen as a once-off but as an exemplar: an indication of a wider, longer-standing problem. Therefore, goes the interpretation of the episode, nobody needs to hold back when excoriating the offender. It’s as if nobody does one stupid thing in their life — it’s all connected and characteristic.

That, in turn, deters potential supporters, turning them into silent cowards, because if you are loyal to a friend who has grievously offended, then the assumption tends to be that you must share their predilections, if not their actions. When Charles Haughey was definitively disgraced, his mansion in Kinsealy stopped being a shrine to be visited, a place wherein to have conspiratorial fun. Only a handful of people stayed steadfast, one of them being the late Gillian Bowler. Asked why she still visited CJ, she said she wouldn’t be much of a friend if her friends had to be perfect.

One friend has stepped up to support Kelly, that friend being John McColgan, the Riverdance man. He didn’t have to do it. But it’s fair to guess that Kelly will never forget him for it. A friend in need, the old saying went, is a friend indeed.

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