PR 101: How you respond in a crisis could REALLY mess things up
I don’t like criticizing and second guessing colleagues and I’ll be the first to admit that as a PR practitioner I’ve been put in some awkward spots by demanding clients who ignored my advice, but I can’t let today’s lead story in the Boston Globe go by without some commentary.
In it, the president of a local elite academic institution few readers will have heard of, seems to be caught dead to rights inflating her resume, turning
her quest for a doctorate into a full-fledged PhD on grant applications and other documents.
Citing by name a New York University spokesman, the Globe reports there is no record Leslie Cohen Berlowitz, president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, ever received a doctorate from the university as stated on the grant applications, which the Globe says it has in hand.
Berlowitz isn’t a terribly sympathetic character as one former board member - cited by name - calls her “an impossible executive.” Another is quoted saying she built a climate of fear throughout the institution and a third - also named - calls Berlowttz “horrible.” The story also links to a 2003 column by friend Alex Beam who identifies at least four other former staffers complaining about Berlowitz’s overbearing management style and other workplace offenses.
Today’s article also quotes another former board member, by name, who is shocked to find Berlowitz’s annual compensation has risen to nearly $600,000, an amount the Globe says is quadruple what leaders of similarly sized nonprofits earn.
In the wake of this information, both the Academy and Ms. Berlowitz refused opportunities to comment and referred the Globe reporter to its PR representative.
Here’s the statement - or at least the part the Globe published - that the PR rep handed out: “Neither the academy nor President Berlowitz is going to respond to subjective, interpretive, and gossipy allegations from former employees and unnamed sources. Nor are they going to respond to personal questions that are irrelevant, do not belong in the public domain and, frankly, smack of sexism.”
Say what? Let’s take that statement apart. First of all, there are no “unnamed sources” in the article. Perhaps some of the comments by former staffers could be called subjective and interpretive, though that’s really stretching things. But gossipy? I don’t think so.
And then there’s the main finding itself. Does she have a PhD or not? Seems like a fairly straight question and hardly “personal and irrelevant” if, as the Globe says, she purported to be in possession of said shingle on federal grant documents which brought the academy more than $600,000 in funding. Do the academy’s board members understand the definition of fraud? Someone’s got some splainin’ to do.
And then there’s the apparent decision by the flack to play the sexism card. Though the Globe points out two other incidents of academic resume inflation one involving a man and another a woman, and of the three cited critics two are men (the Beam column is pretty evenly split among male and female complainers), I guess we’re supposed to think Berlowitz is being singled out because of her gender. Unh-uh.
I think in this case that if you’re not going to say anything, you shouldn’t say anything. Releasing a statement that clearly strains credulity isn’t going to help matters.
The sad fact is that we know how this is all going to play out. First will come an explanation (underlings prepared the grant documents and although she signed them she didn’t notice the mistake). Then will come the mea culpa. Somebody might get punished or fined or dismissed. Somebody might get sued and on and on.
Of course, if she had actually held a PhD, she could have blown the Globe’s story out of the water in an instant. But, huh, that didn’t happen.
Now, as with most other high profile crises that hit the news we don’t have all the facts. But how an institution, government, company or individual reacts to the crisis is sometimes more determinate than the crisis itself.
Just look at the Obama administration’s handling of what really are some low-wattage scandals. It somehow underestimated the GOP’s skill at knitting these incidents to its false narrative of the corrupt, Kenyan, Muslim, socialist president, and allowed the incidents to percolate and bubble about on FOX News and elsewhere before it adequately responded. And in some cases, it still hasn’t adequately responded.
This history of corporate crisis communication is littered with stories about companies and individuals making matters worse by trying to stall, avoid, stonewall cover up and maybe simply praying that it would all go away before finally having to come clean and face harsher treatment than they would have had they simply faced facts right off the bat (are you listening Anthony Weiner?).
I’m always reminded of the sage wisdom of Gene Krantz, the chain-smoking, gruff-talking flight director for NASA during its Gemini and Apollo heydays. Faced with the worst crisis the US space program had ever seen - the three man Apollo 13 craft losing oxygen, fuel, electricity, communications and control - Krantz told his flight controllers “Let’s work the problem people, but let’s not make things worse by guessing.”
UPDATE: Dang, I hate being right all the time. Yesterday I predicted that Berlowitz would blame her underlings for preparing the documents that inflated her resume. And today, lo and behold, the her PR rep issues this lovely statement: “President Berlowitz, who reviewed only the substantive content of the applications, was unaware of the mistakes.” Oh to be so predictable.