When I was a reporter just out of college, I landed a newspaper job in a rural backwater of South Carolina. I had grown up in Chicago under the liberal hand of my father, Larry Ragan. Dad was a card-carrying member of the ACLU, a supporter of George McGovern and the Kennedys, and a believer in religious tolerance. He raised his kids the same way.
So I was not prepared for the religious mallet that so many southern politicians used back then to combat reporters investigating them --- and that a few still wield today.
My favorite memory was how one local politician, upon meeting me the first week I was on the beat, asked me whether I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior.
"Huh?," I think was my reply.
Two months into the job, the question seemed, well, normal.
All of this came flooding back to me when I saw the clip below from a St. Louis, Missouri television station.
Watch how this county commissioner handles this reporter's relentless questioning about potential waste of taxpayer dollars.
At Ragan, we have dubbed this video, "the worst media relations ever."
I have three observations about this clip.
The first is obvious: What does Jesus have to do with spending on correctional institutions? I think we can all agree that this is an inappropriate way to respond to a serious journalist.
The second observation, however, is far more interesting: Note the reporter's response. Without missing a beat, he quickly makes it clear that, yes, he actually does love Jesus, thank you. The whole bizarre episode is taken completely in stride, as if to say, "I get this Jesus-loving question all the time around here. "
Finally, the video shows that despite the knitting together of our nation by television, the movies and all that is ubiquitous about popular culture, there are still huge differences in acceptable behavior between regions of the country, particularly the North and South.
Whenever I teach seminars south of the Mason-Dixon line, I watch every word I say, fearing that any language deemed inappropriate could unleash a torrent of criticism by seminar attendees.
During a workshop in Atlanta a few years ago, I referred repeatedly to the word "penis" during a presentation on headlines. The word had appeared twice on the cover of Cosmopolitan Magazine, and I was making light of it with my Ragan colleagues Jim Ylisela and Steve Crescenzo. We thought nothing of it; after all, it's not the kind of word that will get you into trouble before Chicago audiences.
During the first break of the day, a woman approached me with a question I simply could not answer:
"Sir, why did you use the word penis so much?"
After blurting out something unsatisfactory --- "because it's so damn funny" --- the woman threatened to lead a walk-out of five people who had been offended by our morning session.
The moral of the story: Don't ever assume that regional differences have vanished in this country. If you do, you may be the one in the need of an instant crisis communication plan.