17 October 2013

Evolution of a PR crisis and other observations

The past few days have been tumultuous in the science blogosphere.  I can't do the whole tick-tock but for anyone not up to speed I wrote about the first event here, and the next development here.

In short, Biology-Online has handled their crisis very well, while Scientific American has not done well at all.

In fairness, Biology-Online had the easier task, and apparently fewer lawyers. They had a CEO who just got the information, showed some leadership, and let the right people know about it.  Boom. Over.  Arguably they improved their reputation by demonstrating zero tolerance for inappropriate comments.

Scientific American is a more complex organization, as a former SciAm editor aptly explained. Apparently the lawyers are very powerful there, as they are in many large companies.  But the leadership let their lawyers over-think abstract applications of multi-jurisdictional libel law, paralyze their decision-making process, undercut their executive editor's ability to make the right call, and then take over the company's PR function.

As another smart editor points out, as far as we know no one from Biology-Online or anywhere else ever threatened legal action over this incident.  The chances of anyone filing a lawsuit as a result of Danielle's post were infinitesimal, and the chances of that suit succeeding were even smaller.  As Biology-Online's relatively swift action demonstrated, this was a reasonably simple case of an overmatched dudebro acting like a privileged asshat and a really smart woman calling him out on it.  Bottom line - the post should have never been taken down. It should never have even been considered unless someone made a credible legal threat.  Danielle told nothing but the truth, in the way that only she can. And it was amazing. And Scientific American let her down.  Maryn McKenna's analysis on the actions SciAm did and didn't take has been excellent - and courageous given that she is a contributing editor there.

There are a lot of questions Scientific American hasn't answered.  I believe strongly that the editors at Scientific American want very much for all the ugly details around what happened there to get out in the open so they can learn from it, regain the trust of their readers and their colleagues, and move on.

I believe just as strongly that the lawyers at Scientific American want everyone to stop talking about this as soon as possible.

I'm not trying to diminish the important role lawyers have in organizations. They are often the sentinels of free speech, free thought, and free enterprise.  But shielding a company from some theoretical legal liability is not always the same as defending or preserving your good name. Scientific American's reputation has endured and prospered because of the integrity of its leadership and the quality of its writing, not because of its ability to avoid lawsuits that would never be filed in the first place.

I sincerely hope the editors and lawyers at Scientific American will decide who works for whom and then let the leaders lead. Because while critical stories from people who follow science journalism closely were inevitable, negative pieces from places like ABC News, Fox News, Chronicle of Higher Education, Jezebel, Slate, Business Insider, and International Business Times were not.


This was probably inevitable - though the timing may have been different, had Scientific American done the right thing immediately.

Then something resembling this became necessary, though I have more to say about it in a minute.

And since it did happen, this was inevitable too.

And then this was inevitable and necessary.

And then, of course, this had to happen.

I know Bora and consider him a friend.  What he did was utterly wrong on many levels. I'm not the only one who has told him as much directly.  I think he's continued to make some big mistakes as he realizes the consequences of his actions.  Ultimately, he is responsible for his own choices. So many others have written eloquently about the problems women face in science, in academia, and everywhere else.

Posts from Kathleen Raven, Isis the Scientist, Radium Yttrium, Emily Finke, and Laura Helmuth are among many I found important.  Janet Stemwedel and Kelly Hills have written pieces from an ethicist's perspective that I think are particularly valuable as I look at them through the lens of someone who works in public relations, crisis comms, and issues management.  Karen James has led the #ripplesofdoubt conversation on Twitter.  It has opened eyes and provoked thoughts.


Some have suggested there was a "firestorm" of commentary on Twitter about this, that people have gone over the top.  I disagree. In my experience as a political/PR guy, I've seen far more fury by many more people over much less substance.  (For example, see "birth certificate, Obama.") Further, this discussion doesn't happen in a vacuum.  Right around the time Andrew Maynard was telling Monica Byrne to think twice before outing Bora, the "Dear Prudence" column over at slate was telling women to stop drinking if they don't want to get raped.  And in the many conversations I've had with people about this, one comment from someone I respect sticks out to me: "At least we haven't seen any rape threats or death threats this time.  That gives me hope."

We've gotten to the point where we see not threatening to rape or kill people who speak out against harassment as a "positive" and not a default setting for basic humanity.

Finally, there's one thing I've noticed that very few people have discussed.  It has to do with that "confession" on Bora's site.  I've written a lot of things in my career that require "legal clearance" in one form or another and that statement reminded me of a lot of them.

Bottom line: I'm not convinced he is the sole or even primary author of the words that appear on his own, personal blog. I'm not convinced he had final approval on what appears there. Of course, he owns those words now, including the since-disproven "singular, regrettable event" regarding behavior that hasn't happened "before or since."

I understand that people represent their companies in their public comments at all times and should conduct themselves professionally.  I know that disclaimers are important things, even if they're not always an iron-clad defense against a threat to a brand's reputation. I try to own my words. But I don't think it's appropriate for a company to force someone to publish something on a personal blog.  It may be a minor issue, given all that has happened, but I'd really like to know if that's what happened here.

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