Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, roughly a decade ago, told members of the Dick Pope Chapter of the Florida Public Relations Association in Polk County, “If you mess up, ‘fess up.”

He went on to explain that if he or any member of his agency committed a crime, an insult to others or just a faux pas, his policy is to address the matter immediately and be first to tell the press and public what happened, what was done about it and how it would be prevented in the future.

Professionals who have worked in public relations, journalism or both fields will say the same thing. Not addressing the matter immediately and fully, waiting for it to show up in the news or social media or just not being willing to discuss the matter does not make it go away.

Here in Highlands County two situations have fit this scenario. One was handled as Judd described – admitting a bad decision was made and dealing with it by talking to the offended parties. Not so with the second situation.

Recently, Highlands County taxpayers heard about racially-charged memes shared by Commissioner Arlene Tuck on her personal Facebook page. Within a short time, screenshots had been shared between constituents and one of the most offensive memes had been removed. When confronted, Tuck said her Facebook account had been hacked.

That could be accepted. Afte rall, there are hackers in the cyber world of Facebook.

However, the rest of Tuck’s actions regarding this mess cannot be so easily overlooked.

Tuck referred to herself as a “Hispanic woman,” but when asked for more details, she had no response. A look at her updated voter registration records also does not reflect that. Under race/ethnicity, Tuck marked “white, not of Hispanic order.”

When asked which was true, her comment from the dais that she is a “Hispanic woman” or the mark on her registration that she is “white, not of Hispanic order,” Tuck repeated that she had nothing more to say about the matter.

There was a statement made by Judge Peter Estrada when he swore Tuck into office in 2018. He said he and Tuck, both originally from Tampa, were also part of that city’s mixed cultural heritage.

A simple statement of such is all that Tuck would need to share with her constituents to regain their confidence. Our heritage is never anything we should want to hide, and as pointed out by one concerned resident, if Tuck is indeed of Hispanic descent, she needs to make sure and say so on any Census that is taken.

In his meeting with public relations folk, Judd said that bad news could be a one-day story or several months, depending on how it’s handled. His advice to the PR professionals was to be proactive — to get out in front of the story — to be transparent, readily communicative and even apologetic if necessary.

The reason some news stories and social media posts go “viral” is because, like viruses, they spread quickly and take on a life of their own, especially the more unusual or audacious they are.

A controversy lasts as long as it takes to repair the damage and find common ground on the issue. Otherwise, the matter will fester and it will take a lot more time and effort to heal.

Healing an issue happens a lot easier with open communication and the will to meet common goals.

Tuck challenging those who were concerned with her social media posts to run against her in the next election sounds combative. Her unwillingness to answer questions in a transparent manner is not cooperative or respectful and casts shade over how she will deal with issues in the county as she continues to serve of the Board of County Commission.

It’s been said that people can get a lot more done through cooperation, tolerance and mutual respect than through combativeness and inflexibility.

We need more of the former and a lot less of the latter.