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Public Relations

In a Crisis, Your Firm Will Be Judged in the Court of Public Opinion

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There is a reason that across history and in religious ceremonies burning effigies have helped quell the public’s anger, calm fears, and refocus the mind on new beginnings. Courts of law decide guilt and innocence and accomplish the same thing. Contemporary institutions would do well to learn from this and understand the call of the masses for visible acceptance of responsibility. There is a court of public opinion and they will determine your organization’s fate – if only in their individual minds.

After months of study, an independent investigation [PDF] report regarding the Skip Reville Citadel sexual abuse crisis has been released. The report finds there was no attempt to cover up or conceal the situation. Instead the report describes a limp, pallid attempt at mitigation and single uninformed corporate counsel staff member’s investigation attempt that never raised a red flag or reported the severity to his superiors. This failing, is the cause of much of the public’s continual disgust with The Citadel. The leaders at The Citadel have failed to understand this and continue to lack the boldness to offer public contrition for this omission. Instead, they have danced around the point of “legal obligation” to report.

In his Executive Summary attorney Joseph M. Mcculloch, Jr., who acted an independent coordinator of the investigation performed by two firms writes,

“ … there appeared to be no conspiracy or decision process with an underlying purpose of concealment of the allegation. Rather, it was a well intentioned but inadequate investigation conducted by a single administrative member, operating in a vacuum of policy or procedure, with the administration passively relying upon incomplete and sporadic progress reports which were perceived by administration to be adequate at the time, and general counsel’s unilateral decision that due to the expressed position of the complainant and family desiring privacy the institution should not report.”

The two portions of the report review the investigative actions [PDF] taken at the time of the sexual abuse report to the Office of the President of The Citadel and an institutional review [PDF] of The Citadel’s policies and procedures which must be strengthened or put in place to prevent any further opportunities for child sexual abuse.

What the public wants

I know the public believes that there was a cover-up in this case because there was no raising of a red flag, no light on a horrible event—then or now. So, in the ongoing opinion of the public, there was no shock and no statement of “a terrible thing has happened.” The public believes that The Citadel deliberately hid what happened. No report is going to change this perception now.

If your firm finds itself involved in a scandalous situation, always put yourself in the emotional place of an outside onlooker. Feel their intense emotions – then respond to those emotions with sincere statements of sympathy for the victims. While you must also address the details of the incident and how it will be prevented in the future, any missteps in addressing the intense emotions of  onlookers who put themselves in the place of the victim will leave your firm damaged, no matter how well you mitigate physical or financial damage.

Of the two independent investigations into the 2011 high-profile higher-education sexual abuse cases (Penn State and The Citadel,) the Freeh Report did more to begin the repair of Penn State’s damaged reputation, because it was emotional, vivid and immediate in addition to addressing facts. And it called for dismissal of those perceived to be guilty of allowing the environment where abuse occurred.

Public guilt and contrition required

The only thing that might have changed the public’s perception of The Citadel then and now is absolute openness – the bright light of public scrutiny on any similar incident. The public wants a scapegoat or a flogging. And in these reports released by The Citadel, there is none.

While President Rosa is on record as going on air and declaring, “We could have done more…” it was far too little, too late, and no wimpy report is going to remove the stench of perceived guilt now. The Citadel has too many clumsy mis-steps to clear their name in the short-term. Perhaps becoming the beach-head of child abuse prevention, or time, and dedication to prevention, and education will repair their damaged reputation. And in this there is hope.

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