11 October 2013

Free crisis PR advice for Biology-online.org

MEMORANDUM

To: "Ofek" and the leadership of biology-online.org
From: David Wescott
Re: Correspondence with Dr. Danielle Lee

SITUATION ANALYSIS

Your reputation has been badly damaged by the publishing of recent correspondence with biologist Dr. Lee, in which your blog editor suggests her reluctance to provide content to your site without financial compensation makes her an "Urban Whore."

Her response (along with a copy of the correspondence) was initially posted at her Scientific American blog, but now resides on other sites. The correspondence generated significant conversation on twitter among highly influential figures in the science and sci-comm communities, including some who have contributed to biology-online in the past and now wish to have their content removed. It has also led to critical posts on your own site's forum.  As of Friday evening the conversation continues in earnest.

As you may know, Dr. Lee is a very popular and influential member of her community.  Her writing and outreach skills are well-established and celebrated. She is a leading advocate for diversity in STEM and a role model to many.  She also has exceptional communication skills beyond writing, as evidenced by this video of her, speaking extemporaneously, when asked to finish the sentence "Science is..."



Two significant issues compound the immediate reputational damage for your organization.  First, the absence of a public response, specifically an unqualified apology, suggests you either stand by your comments or you are not organized enough to marshall a response and demonstrate accountability. It should go without saying the tone and word choice in the correspondence was unprofessional and wholly inappropriate. The comments go beyond the issue of compensation for legitimate work product and put you on the wrong side of the discussions on sexism and racism.

Second, Biology-online is part of the Scientific American Partnership Network, and prominent readers are now asking if this relationship led to the removal of Dr. Lee's post from her SciAm blog. As you know this form of censorship will not stand with SciAm's readers.  Scientific American's editors will be compelled to comment publicly on why the post was removed, and this situation poses a threat to their reputation as well.

Two other issues threaten your organization's reputation over the medium-term.  First, the correspondence rekindles a common debate in many online communities about appropriate compensation for quality writing.  While many websites ask for (and often receive) content without financial compensation, authors argue it diminishes the overall value of content overall and damages the livelihoods of even the best freelance writers.  This will diminish your reputation among those you solicit most and ultimately render your business model unsustainable.

Second, the site itself does not meet high standards of transparency, nor does it demonstrate best practices in design. The "webmaster" asserts copyright (i.e., ownership) of all content on the site while not disclosing the webmaster's identity.  The "biology online team" do not provide adequate information of their background, roles or responsibilities.  The site employs an outdated design, rudimentary SEO tactics, and free ad banners and forum scripts. Claims of significant web traffic are unverified.  Text written by the webmaster or staff has numerous errors and typos. The site has no social media assets to allow for more direct and public feedback. Taken in sum the site looks like a small operation that spams writers for content, claims ownership of the effort of others, and attempts to profit while investing as little time or resources as possible.

In the absence of quick remedies, Biology-online can expect continued criticism from prominent online voices, fewer quality contributions, less web traffic, and the potential dissolution of its partnership with Scientific American.  Any traffic spike the site gets right now is almost completely attributed to the controversy. Ultimately, this will hasten the site's demise.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Biology-online leadership should offer a public and unqualified apology to Dr. Lee.  The apology should not only acknowledge the inappropriate word choice, but also clearly recognize the cultural and contextual ramifications of those words. Further, the apology should be attached to a full name - not the "biology-online team" or "webmaster."  It is best placed on the Biology-online blog and promoted via social media channels.

Biology-online should also specify what it has done or will do to ensure accountability.  While this does not mean that Ofek should necessarily lose his job, some action is appropriate to reinforce the notion that biology-online truly values the work of its contributors and treats all people with respect and dignity.

Biology-online should reach out to Dr. Lee and others in the community and ask to have a public, candid discussion about the issues facing freelance writers and content creators, specifically addressing the concerns Dr. Lee raises in her response and developing or affirming "best practices."  It would be best if a third party with more credibility on these issues led the discussion, such as the editors at Scientific American.

Biology-online should offer an apology to the editors at Scientific American for endangering their reputation by association.  There is little doubt that the Sci-Am partnership is significant to your site's credibility, and there is value in preserving that partnership.

Finally, Biology-online should conduct its affairs more transparently and redesign its site to reinforce this value. The site should identify its leadership with full names and clear responsibilities.  It should elaborate and clarify its policies on how it seeks content and why it asserts ownership of others' work product.  It should clearly express how it adds value to your readers and contributors.

28 comments:

Greg Laden said...

Excellent advice, wrapped in epic ironic that you are providing it for free.

Anonymous said...

Why on earth should Ofek "not necessarily lose his job"?

Call a stranger a "whore" on the clock, get fired. Seems reasonable.

Anonymous said...

Have you thought about the lack of authentication surrounding this issue? E-mails can easily be altered from their original state, which may be why the SciAm blog entry was taken down. Did that ever cross your mind? Or, are you only interested in a good call-out social media spectacle?

Kate said...

Dear Anonymous at 7:26: okay, give a good reason why D.N. Lee would do such a thing? The simplest explanation is that a well-known science communicator was dumbfounded and angered by being called a whore for not writing blog posts for free, and wrote about it. Well-known bloggers often get asked to do pro-bono writing, and accept or decline, then move on. What possible reason would someone have to blow it up like that?

MomDude said...

Dear Anonymous at 7:26: Have you thought about how ludicrous and ridiculous it would be for anyone to base a public argument like this on a falsified or altered e-mail? Both parties would have copies of the e-mails in question and it would be trivial for the person being accused to publish their "correct" copy of the e-mail. Rather than a "he said, she said" situation, there will be unedited copies of the e-mails on multiple servers at both end. In the real world this is called "evidence". So, your wild, speculative, unsubstantiated, and anonymous conspiracy theory doesn't seem to hold water.

Judith Wright said...

David, I enjoyed reading your post. Your analysis is succinct and insightful. Your recommendations are highly appropriate. I'd be happy to have you on my team should I become mired in such an imbroglio. I hope that the powers at biology-on-line read and take your advice. You have given them something of tremendous value.

Anonymous said...

Kate & MomDude:

Believe it or not, this sort of thing has happened to someone I know and respect, a Black guy at UChicago. A Twitter argument got taken into his private life and the woman took e-mails and altered them to accuse my friend of all sorts of things. She didn't care that she could be outed because she got her story out there first. And like in the media, the first person who gets their story out there wins in the court of public opinion at least. So please don't be condescending by saying "Have you thought about how ludicrous and ridiculous it would be for anyone to base a public argument like this on a falsified or altered e-mail?" Yes, I have. And it has been done before by one of DNLee's friends, Tressie McMillan Cottom. Thank God my friend Robert kept the original e-mails so when he was almost routed by UChicago, he was able to stay and fight. But that didn't stop people from reblogging the post about him and so on. He's since graduated, but he's still going through the legal avenues to get the altered e-mails taken down. Unfortunately there has been unspeakable damage done to his reputation. The point of my post was to point out that verification of the e-mails needs to be done before libeling people on the Internet. And don't mistake the power dynamics of a black woman making charges without them being supported. And white liberals love to amplify these claims, just look at Duke Lacrosse.

Anonymous said...

You're talking about Robert Lee Mitchell III. You can easily see both sides to that ugly exchange online and they both match up. Unfortunately they both have inflated egos and it is disgusting to see academics behave like bickering teens but Robert was in no way an innocent victim. Come on.

Anonymous said...

Also Robert Lee Mitchell III has offended more than one fellow colleague in a bitter online dispute. So let's just first look at the common denominator.

Simeon Beresford said...

"Biology-online should reach out to Dr. Lee and others in the community and ask to have a public, candid discussion about the issues facing freelance writers and content creators, specifically addressing the concerns Dr. Lee raises in her response and developing or affirming "best practices." It would be best if a third party with more credibility on these issues led the discussion, such as the editors at Scientific American."

Alas I am afraid Sci Am has now lost more credibility than Biology Online

HlTo said...

Dear David,
unfortunately Dr. Lee decided to write a blog about what happened first (nice example of her communication skills). We would not even know if somebody didn't post it on Biology-Online.org. So you can hardly blame the team, they tried to respond as quickly as possible.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous at 3:44AM, so you've seen the original e-mails? No! UChicago saw the unedited e-mails and that is why he was able to finish his M.A. program. Tressie e-mailed Robert after Storifying his tweets, which is actually equal to cyberstalking in the state he is an official resident of: North Carolina. Robert was kind and polite in his reply to her. Tressie didn't post that e-mail. Why? What does Tressie McMillan Cottom have to hide? Why is she posting altered e-mails where she claims Robert "blackmailed me into...something"? And furthermore, why hasn't she followed through on her promise to sue Robert? Oh, yeah, one cannot sue using altered e-mails and everything Robert said was the gospel. If you want a 3rd party source, one who knows about Tressie's wayward ways, read this: http://thewayoftheid.tumblr.com/post/41958560759/a-note-on-narratives-and-blackademics

Eric Woods said...

Anonymous, dude, you just caused me to waste forty-five minutes of my life, researching the Robert Lee Mitchell III roast/debacle in search of the "altered" emails. And of course I discovered that no one altered anything the guy said. The woman just didn't include her part in the roast. And anyway, your friend gave at least as good as he got. I can say objectively that RLM III is an offensive dick, albeit a very well-spoken, funny and ultimately entertaining one. (So it wasn't a complete waste of my 45 min as I had a good laugh.)

I'm happy for you, Anonymous, that you have a Black friend, but to reference Black academics engaging one another in a less than light-hearted game of the dozens in a discussion of the attack on (and betrayal of) Dr. Lee only serves to minimize what has happened to her.
And to try to connect Dr. Lee w/ a nasty little Black twitter beef because she is friends w/ someone involved leads me to believe that you don't like Black people. Either you don't like Black people or you like having your thoughts and opinions read (in comment form on blogs) more (than you like Black people).

Robert Lee Mitchell III (as well as Black academics in general) can do w/out such a friend as the person who sought to rehash that beef. Which is why the poster probably sighed his/her name as "Anonymous"

Anonymous said...

Eric Woods,

Are you pretending to be obtuse or are you really just obtuse? Robert's version of what happened with the UNEDITED e-mails isn't in cyberspace. So of course you haven't seen the altered e-mails. You've read Tressie McMillan Cottom's version of what happened. So you saying "And of course I discovered that no one altered anything the guy said" is comical. I clearly said the E-MAIL(s) were altered––you're probably talking about the Tweets. So, again, are you obtuse or are you just pretending to be?

And for you to call a disabled black guy who overcame poverty and a spinal cord injury "an offensive dick, albeit a very well-spoken, funny and ultimately entertaining one" while claiming *I* am racist or somehow dislikes black people is rich.

So, let me break it down for you. I saw what supposedly happened to DNLee and remembered her being one of the main culprits involved. I just simply put in text what many people are thinking: "are those e-mails unaltered and in their original state?"

That seems to rile a lot of people up. But President Reagan taught me well: "Trust but verify." Why is that so offensive to people? I would hope that DNLee has the evidence to prove she was asked that offensive question. And asking for authentication is not inappropriate.

DNLee chose to associate herself with a woman who altered e-mails to make my friend look bad. So it's not inappropriate to wonder if she would do the same.

We do agree on one thing: I should have left Robert out of this. He said he wasn't pleased that I mentioned his situation, but DNLee alluded to it in tweets and that angered me!

And as for signing my name "Anonymous," the truth is simple. I honestly wasn't paying attention to the options. It wasn't until you pointed it out that I clicked on it. But who cares what name I put in the box. I don't owe you anything. And you're clearly a troll, so I'll continue to click the options EYE want to click. Or is a negress not allowed to do that now?

Anonymous said...

Biology-Online.org is a front for a business that sells college papers.

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I enjoyed reading your post. Your analysis is succinct and insightful. Your recommendations are highly appropriate. I'd be happy to have you on my team should I become mired in such an imbroglio. I hope that the powers at biology-on-line read and take your advice. You have given them something of tremendous value.
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