On his first day, PR maven Ted Prince sees his boss turn the downhill slide of a French farce into a wild success.
The first day in any new job can be a challenge. But it's especially daunting when an emergency strikes. This month, I started work at one of the most ambitious cutting-edge universities in the country, the University of the M25, as second-in-command in the customer relations and marketing department.
My boss, Nicholas McVelly, likes to describe our department as the "image factory" -we invent how others see our fine institution, we give it a public face. As it says on the online brochure: "We're a talent magnet, so come and stick with us."
For some old-timers, this job was little more than rattling off a few press releases about the biology department creating a mouse with three ears or making an appeal to former students for cash. But times have spun forward, and now we have to make sure that All News Is Good News.
This seemed like a difficult proposition on the first day of term, when we had a panicky phone call from the modern languages faculty saying that they had scored nul point on the recruitment front for French. The hopes pinned on clearing had come to nothing, and a couple of students who were expected had failed to arrive.
French had been "an accident waiting to happen", McVelly said. In the past few years, the department had been kept going by a visa scam involving waiters at a local North African restaurant and a cut-price arrangement with a Canadian forestry company needing bilingual loggers. No one has seen a real French student since the days when people snogged to Je t'aime at parties.
The vice-chancellor, a recovering existentialist, took the news badly. We were going to have to close the course, lay off staff and lose funding. The unions would kick up a fuss and the publicity would be terrible. Those vultures from the University of London Gateway would scent blood and start talking about a takeover.
"Not so fast," McVelly said. "Let's not look at the pile-up in the middle lane -let's cross over to the sunny side of the street. Rather than announcing that we're closing a department, we'll announce that we're opening a new one. What's the most successful, over-subscribed course this term?"
"Ski science," said the vice-chancellor, his voice nervous on the speaker phone.
"Well, we'll announce a new course, French and ski science. It's got chalet appeal. Links with tourism and leisure. We'll get Eddie the Eagle in a pair of skis and a beret."
"And we could keep the department open?"
"It would be rising to new challenges. We would lose a few of the staff at Christmas, get the rest kitted up in the ski-suits. We'd still be offering French, but in a more practical setting."
"Will it work?" asked the vice-chancellor.
"Unique, innovative, offering vocational skills, responding to regional needs. It's got an international reputation."
"I'll put up some posters on the M4 in Wales."
There was a long pause and a hopeful chink of ice in a glass.
"It's another success story?" the vice-chancellor ventured.
"Every day, in every way, we're getting better and better."
It was certainly a day to remember. And as I sat in the car park that evening, I felt thrilled that I was part of this diverse family of scholars. Such was the excitement that day that I hadn't even had time to check my "relocation package". When I opened the bulky envelope, I found an AA road map and a Pounds 5 discount voucher for any participating Tattooed Trucker service station.
As it says in the advert. We're on the road to success.
Email Ted Prince your PR challenges at email@example.com