When the ‘PR Fail’ case is you

As PR educators, we lean heavily on case studies to help students connect theory and practice, and a lot of those case studies involve PR failures. For whatever reason, we learn more from mistakes than successes.

When the case study is about you and an organization you care about, the learning is painful. That’s how it’s been for my colleagues and me over the past 6 weeks, as the Kent State School of Journalism landed itself in a shit storm over the inexplicable firing of popular and high-performing professor.

The back story. Professor Gene Sasso learned in mid-January that his contract for 2013-14 would not be renewed. He was flabbergasted. After all, the Online PR Master’s program he engineered, along with Dr. Bob Batchelor, met every performance mark set for it. In just 2 years, the program enrolled 260+ students and generated nearly $6 million in tuition revenues. Student retention remains above 90%, and Gene’s teaching evaluations are stellar. He’s earned broad respect among students and the faculty of the Online PR Master’s.

Most places, this A+ report card earns you a promotion. But not this time. Why was Gene not renewed? Well, under Ohio’s at-will work laws, the employer doesn’t have to explain firings to anyone, including Gene. And in this case, they didn’t.

We know Gene wasn’t released to save money, as he will be replaced, and the new person will make as much or more. And we know it’s unlikely we’ll find a candidate with Gene’s expertise in PR and his vision for online education.

Alumni join the cause. A small group of angry alumni — members of the first graduating class of the Kent State Online PR Master’s — took up Professor Sasso’s cause shortly after they heard the news. They sent a letter of protest to Kent State’s power elite, and shared that letter with a smattering of KSU influentials, including board members, key alumni and large employers of our J-School grads.

The controversy would probably have gone no further had it not been for the mystifying response issued by a high-ranking academic official. That response had alumni and friends of Gene doing a collective “WTF?” You may download of copy of the alumni letter (PDF) and the administration’s follow-up message.

Enter the Groundswell. The response irritated some and insulted others, and it fueled more chatter in the digital space among alumni and employers. That chatter captured the attention of some trade and business media. As for me, I shared my concerns on this blog and with my Facebook friends, just as I do every time Kent State make a questionable PR move. (See comment #1 for links.)

If you’re a student of social media, nothing about this case will surprise you. It’s the phenomenon that Li and Bernoff dubbed “the Groundswell,” way back in ’07. In the Groundswell, we all have a voice.

At the end of this post I’ve inserted links to some media coverage that resulted from this story and to my own blog post praising the work of Gene Sasso. None of these stories reached much of an audience, but the case does present important lessons in reputation management in our digital age — lessons most of you have heard over and over.

#1: Involve people in the decisions that affect their lives. Gene Sasso’s dismissal came without consultation of colleagues or the academic director of Kent State’s Online PR Master’s. As an aside, the administration also violated our collective bargaining agreement, since the contract specifically requires they consult with the faculty on hiring and firing decisions. This one was done in secrecy.

#2: Explain your actions. Be transparent. Classic HR policy says we don’t talk about WHY someone is fired, as privacy issues come into play. But when you don’t even share those reasons with the victim, negative consequences ensue, along with boatloads of ill will and lots of back-channel conversations.

#3: Don’t surprise your stakeholders.  As a 20-something PR guy in the late 1970s, I learned that stakeholders don’t like surprises — especially when those surprises impact people and things they hold dear. Anticipate reactions, then ask yourself if a) Is this the right decision;  b) Is it worth the price?

The dust-up is pretty much over, and one professor’s firing at Kent State is already yesterday’s news. Sure, some egos were bruised and some feelings hurt, but things will soon be back to normal.

Unfortunately, this story does have a victim who won’t see “normal” for a while. Still, I suspect it won’t be long before Gene is working for one of our competitors helping them excel in online education. Let’s wish him well.

Like so many PR failures, this one is a lose-lose scenario, and I suppose that makes it worth studying.

Links to other stories and commentary:

* The original link to this story on KentWired has disappeared from the site. New link is to the YouTube page of reporter Rich Peirce.

7 thoughts on “When the ‘PR Fail’ case is you

  1. I mention in the post that I’ve frequently criticized my employer “every time Kent State make a questionable PR move.” To be authentic, we must we willing to reflect upon our own missteps. To ignore them is dishonest.

    Here are a few of those posts:

    January 7, 2012

    April 28, 2009
    December 28, 2007
    December 14, 2007
    September 26, 2007

    Note that a good many of Kent State’s PR fumbles came in 2007, very early in the administration of the current president. Rookie mistakes?

  2. This March 4 post by Shel Holtz contains a parallel lesson. Here’s the key takeaway:

    “Historically, internal matters were internal; they were nobody else’s business. But the Internet and social media have rendered such distinctions obsolete. Any decision a company makes—internal or external—is subject to instant public exposure that can result in reputational damage.”

  3. I did not have the privilege of knowing Gene Sasso. And while I have little ticks and buggers about trivial concerns regarding the online program, I am blessed and extremely honored to be a future Kent State Alumni of the Masters in PR program.

    The education I am currently receiving and the level of instruction I enjoy is outstanding. I can’t tell you much of anything I learned from undergraduate (of course that was 30 years ago!), and maybe the fact I’m fresh and involved now in school makes a difference; but I feel empowered by my education today. I have the ability to actually communicate what I am learning with others in way that they can understand.

    If Gene’s legacy is anything to an “outsider” who never knew him it’s this – he put in order something that will forever impact not only my life, but the lives of others who can take part in a program of this caliber. My husband is also working on his Masters from Keller. He decided after a the first year that he was not getting a level of support and instruction that a degree of that level should provide. Lessons given by facilitators with not contact by the lead instructor and little if any support or feedback left him feeling hung out to dry and wasting valuable time and money. He is now looking to transfer to another program. Sadly KSU does not offer programs in his field.

    I am confident in my education. I’ve put my life somewhat on hold for it and committed family finances toward it. It is the achievement of a lifetime for me. And while I might not always agree with assignment grades I receive being the perfectionist that I am (curse you 9 for not being an 10), I have grown in ways I cannot express. I eagerly anticipate graduation next May and the honor of walking with my classmates. I did not walk my for my Bachelors. I just didn’t care about it or the school I attained it from. It was little more than a means to an end.

    This is different. I am proud beyond words to be a student at Kent State and know that this too is Gene’s legacy for having the visionary wisdom to put the right team of talent together and the message for KSU that loudly resounds “come be part of something truly astounding!”

    I am astounded Mr. Sasso and you will be missed even by someone who never knew you.

  4. Keep in mind, in Ohio the performance evaluations of public employees are public record. That’s the law. What’s the evaluation of your local police officer, your child’s public school teacher, the college coach who doesn’t like to follow NCAA regs, it’s all public record.

  5. Karl: But if you have no performance evaluation, there’s nothing to view, is there? That’s what’s so maddening about this case — the total absence of transparency.

  6. Pingback: ToughSledding on the road ahead — send money! | ToughSledding

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