The Biggest Work F***-ups I Made – And What They Taught Me

I was going to call this ‘the biggest mistakes I’ve made in my career’, then realised that I make ‘mistakes’ all the time – things that aren’t necessarily huge errors, but that I could have done differently and have impacted on my work and my business and that I’m always learning from. Those ‘mistakes’ are another topic for another time.

THIS post though is about the big errors.

The ‘OH SH*T’ moments. The times when you want to run far, far away. When you want to curl up on your mum’s/partner’s/pal’s knee and have your head stroked and be told it’s all going to be alright and you haven’t just made a humongous bloody f*&%-up. Those ones.

What’s funny though is that, with the benefit of hindsight, I can now see that even my biggest OH SH*T moments weren’t really all that huge.

Oh hindsight, you casual companion, were where you when I needed you?

Because at the time, oh god, things felt hideous. Hideous, hideous, hideous.

 

‘It’s PR, not ER…’

There used to be a saying, when I worked in PR agencies in my 20s and early 30s: ‘it’s PR, not ER’.

I really liked that saying.

It was meant to remind everyone that were working in the often fancy, sometimes serious and occasionally downright ridiculous industry of public relations, and there was not a lot of point getting your knickers in a twist about anything much.

Our work was mainly about coming up with daft stories and stunts to get our clients in the papers. We were not saving lives; whatever happened, nobody would die, so let’s not get stressed and have a cup of tea and enjoy our work, shall we?

EXCEPT MOST PEOPLE ACTED LIKE THAT WASN’T ACTUALLY THE CASE.

Many people I worked with, particularly when I started out at a big London agency, acted like it WAS all a case of life or death. That we’d get bird flu or all our limbs would fall off and the world would end if a client wasn’t sent that document immediately, or we didn’t get a trillion pieces of national press coverage for a daft made-up story. (A daft made-up story that was probably a rehashed version of a daft made-up story that didn’t get a trillion pieces of coverage the previous month either.)

Unsurprisingly, it could be a horrible environment to work in, and with hindsight (there he is again), I can see that this is where my fear of making mistakes and putting work out there that might not be 100% perfect – perish the thought – stems from.

So here we go, the biggest errors I made and what I learned from them.

 

1. The Time I Read A Spreadsheet Incorrectly And My Client Ended Up On National News As A Result

This was the big one that everyone found out about. And when I say everyone, I don’t just mean the 100+ people I worked with, or my clients, but everyone who watched the News at Ten one night in June in the late 2000s.

Just a few million people.

I won’t go into large amounts of detail but I’ll preface this by saying that my ex-client is one of the biggest brands in the world, and they were sponsoring the world’s biggest sporting event.

My job at the time was to organise regional media coverage around a group of youngsters who had won tickets to the sporting event, via a competition run by my client.

I made a simple admin error, and sent a letter to one of the competition winners containing incorrect details about their prize.

It was a very small mistake: the kid had still won a completely amazing prize, but there’d just been a little mix-up over the specific activity they’d be participating in at the event.

No big deal.

EXCEPT. The kid’s (somewhat ungrateful and opportunistic) parents went to their local paper to complain about the mix-up. The national papers picked up a suitably newsworthy element of the story and before long my scary Head Honcho Client Boss was on the phone to my scary Head Honcho Agency Boss, wanting to know what the heck had happened.

And then the story was featured on the News at Ten.

And watched by a few million people.

In the end, everything worked out positively. The News at Ten coverage showed the client in a good light. And ‘all publicity is good publicity’ of course, if you believe the old adage.

(Also, I should add that I, personally, wasn’t named and shamed and identified as the pleb in the office who caused the whole sorry debacle. A reminder that things can always be worse….)

Still, I thought the world had ended. I cried, several times. I felt like the world’s biggest, most useless and most incapable moron. I already felt quite unconfident in an office of people I thought were super clever and super talented and my mistake only amplified those feelings.

Could the situation have been avoided? Yes, I could have not made the error in the first place – but these things happen.

What I should have done instead was owned the mistake. Admitted it and tried to fix it but then laughed about it and used the opportunity to boost my profile within my company (my Head Honcho Agency Boss didn’t really know who I was before the incident; afterwards, he most certainly did…).

Still, you live and learn, and I have finally stopped seeing that kid’s face in my dreams at night. (I jest.)

Anyway, moving on to….

 

2.The Time We Had To Lie To Clients And Feign Illness To Save Face Because ‘I’d Not Done My Job Properly’

This happened towards the end of my agency career, when I’d finally had enough and started thinking about doing my own thing.

One of the major things I disliked about agency life was the hierarchy and – ultimately, I can see now – the fact that I wasn’t the boss. Not because I’m a megalomaniac but because I always felt disparity between what the business owners promised to clients and what the middle managers (i.e. me) could actually make happen with the budget and resource available.

At the time, I was very overworked, managing an underperforming team while also producing various strategy documents with direction from the company owner.

I was working on one particular plan that I was due to show my boss ahead of a client meeting the next day. The plan was looking OK to me, not the best work of my life, but OK under the circumstances.

When I sat down with my boss to run through it, with just a couple of hours to spare before our client meeting because my boss wasn’t able to meet earlier, she completely poo-pooed it all.

She told me that there was ABSOLUTELY NOTHING in my plan that we could present to the client.

That the work I’d toiled and stressed over, while juggling far too many other things, was a big pile of sh*t, in other words.

OH.

We feigned illness to the client and postponed the meeting for a couple of weeks.

Not a huge deal.

But it was one of several episodes towards the end of my agency career where I felt undervalued and exploited, and I eventually told them where to go – in a very polite way, of course.

(And I’ve written ‘I’d not done my job properly’ in the heading in inverted commas, because I knew I was good at my job, but often felt like I was being asked to perform the impossible.)

Could the situation have been avoided? Yes. I could have demanded my boss sat down with me much sooner. Communicated with her about how I was feeling. Questioned her about why my work wasn’t what she had in mind. Realised that the situation was nothing to do with me and my ability but about too few resources and too much work.

In the end, it was one of a few straws that started breaking this camel’s back – and now I’m very grateful it happened.

 

3. The Time I Presented An Awards Ceremony And Read The Autocue Like A Short-Sighted Robot

This final thing happened a few years ago, when I was already working for myself and had started writing my weekly column in the local paper. I was asked by one of the editors of the paper if I’d be up for presenting an awards ceremony that they held every year.

Why yes, count me in. What could possibly go wrong?

I agreed to present the awards, where I’d be reading a script – written by the newspaper’s editor – from an autocue. (I’d never used an autocue in my life.) In front of a couple of hundred people at a fancy dinner. No big deal.

I was sent the script about 24 hours before the event. I had zero time, really, to familiarise myself with it; I had other work commitments to see to as well, and it was a bloody long script, there was no way I’d be able to memorise it – and isn’t that what the autocue is for?

The day of the awards came. I turned up a few hours before the ceremony to practice with the autocue, and actually felt comfortable using it once I’d had a few attempts.

Until the editor popped into the room and told me I sounded wooden and unnatural and needed to be much more relaxed.

Oh.

Unsuprisingly, I no longer felt comfortable. I was in a blind panic. Suddenly I was absolutely dreading the whole thing.

Of course, when the time came for my big presenting debut, I froze. I stumbled and muttered and just about made it through (and maybe there’s a miniscule chance it wasn’t actually as bad as I thought) but GOD I wanted the ground to swallow me up.

Looking back, I’m miffed with myself that I didn’t ask for the script sooner, to have learned it like a pro – although it was at an incredibly busy time for my fledgling consultancy and I would have been reciting lines at 2am. And I’m miffed I wasn’t able to tell the editor to f*&% off.

Still, no-one died. I can say I’ve presented an awards ceremony, and I won’t come out in a rash if I ever have to read from an autocue again. Maybe.

Moral of the story? Own your f*&%-ups and treat them as the lessons they are. Fix them then (try to) laugh about them, And nothing’s ever as bad once there’s a bit of space between you and the incident in question anyway. (And remember it’s highly unlikely that your mistake will get you on the News at Ten.)

I’d love to know about your worst f*&%-ups and what they taught you – feel free to leave a comment below!

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