CFI: A case study in a PR failure

I won’t recap the full back story of what’s happened at Center for Inquiry Transnational (not to be confused with Centre for Inquiry Canada which is embroiled in its own difficulties) but take a look at PZ’s roundup for some of what’s been written on the subject. What I want to focus on today is how, at multiple times, this entire fiasco could have been avoided.

The simple lesson for group organizers is that you have to start treating blogs like legitimate (but opinionated) media.

I first shared CFI’s vacuous statement on Facebook with the heading “a lesson on how not to handle PR.” I was criticized later in the thread on the basis that this was exactly what public relations ought to be:

Given the PR practices engaged in by, among others, the tobacco industry, oil and gas interests, and corporations such as Walmart that are notorious for horrible employment standards, this is exactly how PR is generally done. The entire purpose of PR is to save one’s image while making as few substantive changes as possible.

To which I thoroughly disagree. I’m in a number of classes to boost my ability to organize nonprofits, and one of them was on public relations. The aim of a successful PR program is to align your messaging with your audience so as to persuade them to adopt your stance. It doesn’t have to be malicious and it often involves internal changes if your target markets are shifting from the mission/product/service you’re providing.

Coming back to CFI, the first misstep was in Lindsay’s misguided speech. As Greta pointed out, it was a mistake both in terms of content and context; I am however, sympathetic to JT’s view that it was not likely intended to show contempt or offend. Nevertheless, without a clear statement from Lindsay or the Board otherwise, people are left to read whatever intentions they so choose (but I’m getting ahead of myself).

The second PR blunder was Lindsay’s lightning response to Rebecca Watson’s criticisms. The first obvious mistake was the vicious and condescending tone he took. Any statement that begins with “Rebecca Watson inhabits an alternate universe.  At least that is the most charitable explanation I can provide for her recent smear.” is not being charitable in any sense of the word. The second mistake was posting it on the same day. As CEO of the organization sponsoring the conference, he ought to have been schmoozing, attending fundraising dinners, and making people feel welcome. Hiding away to post a bitter, personal attack looks petty. The only good public relations move made by Lindsay or the Board was Lindsay’s subsequent apology for his “intemperate language.”

Next, as letters of complaint flowed in from speakers, attendees, bloggers, and other CFI supporters, the Board dropped the ball again by failing to deal with the issue in any urgent manner. This allowed the issue to go viral and reach far more voices then it needed to. The president could have easily made a quick statement or the Board could have held a quick conference call in the same week. The delay gives the impression that the Board doesn’t care about the issue or the voices being raised.

Finally, the Statement failed in every possible way. A properly crafted response to a PR crisis needs to: (a) address the concern to show that voices are being heard, (b) suggest restitution, and (c) explain how future situations won’t arise. The statement didn’t need to agree with the criticisms or take an extreme response, but it needs to show an understanding of why people are upset. Instead, the statement avoided the issue by not even using Ron Lindsay’s name or mentioning his speech and merely expressed the board’s “unhappiness.”

The subsequent explosion of condemnation (which is nearly unanimous by bloggers from across the internet, with the exception of no more than two) was therefore entirely predictable, and to not expect it was a failure of leadership on behalf of CFI.

I said at the beginning that the Board ought to think of bloggers as traditional media. It’s easy to understand why. PZ Myers alone over 130,000 people following him on Twitter, and undoubtedly more follow his blog. In a movement where groups with a membership of 10,000 are considered successful, you ought to care what these kinds of bloggers think. That isn’t to say you have to agree, but you need to put some thought into how your statements will be received.

Compare it to trying to reach out to Fox News viewers. You may not agree with the editors and hosts, but you know there are some in that audience worth reaching out to, so making sure you get your message through their medium without too much editorializing is important. Of course the analogy fails because I don’t know how frequently CFI will want to communicate with Fox News viewers, but I would hope they want to reach out to people who occasionally read or follow bloggers like PZ Myers (and others).

Put CFI’s response to this issue in light of David Silverman’s response to a report that a former employee is suing American Atheists for racial discrimination and wrongful dismissal. Rather than obfuscate the issue behind legal curtains, Silverman went directly to the claims and defended his organization. I’m not sure where the truth lies on this issue but I will give credit to Silverman for (once again) showing an understanding and appreciation for how social media has changed the game for organizations. This may partially be a reason why Sikivu Hutchinson’s is the only blog post really discussing the situation.*

As I’ve already hit 1000 words, I think I’ll end my discussion here. The freethought community has come a long way over the past decade since the publishing of the End of Faith (seriously, it was published 9 years ago) and the start of the “New Atheism.” Organizationally, we are learning many things but many groups still struggle to find strong leadership, while not succumbing to founder’s syndrome (where a group is shaped by a lone charismatic leader). We need to get better at communications, management, and a host of other skills, while continuing to fight for secularism, skepticism, and social justice.

*The other reasons may be less benign to my point: that the Lindsay controversy overshadowed it, that sexism/feminism is a bigger issue for more people than racism, or that the story broke on Skeptic Ink which has no credibility among many bloggers due to its founding as a revolt against Freethought Blogs.