Category Archives: DePauw university

DePauw and Delta Zeta–the story goes on…

After reading the very thoughtful and thought provoking comments of Michael about my criticism of the New York Times article re Delta Zeta, I decided this was a comment deserving some response. But my first comment is about the blogworld and how it changes the nature of crisis management. I pointed out in Now Is Too Late (written in 2001) that the Internet was greatly lengthening a story. The mainstream media will cover it and then typically quickly move on and the story is gone, but those most interested and impacted by the story will continue the discussion for a long time. Interestingly, I still see most communication professionals operating as if when the media interest has left, the story is over and it is time to stop communicating. One even shut down a website that was getting tens of thousands of hits a day based on the idea that the media interest was gone and there was no more new information to communicate. Well, if the conversation is still going on, there is still much reason to keep communicating. And this Delta Zeta story is an excellent example.

I very much appreciate Michael’s questions and comments regarding my take on the story. In part because even though he strongly disagrees with me, unlike at least one other commenter on this blog, he kept his remarks to the topic and didn’t slip into personal attack. Thanks, Michael. This is the way these conversations ought to go, I think.

Most of the numerous people who have commented since I first posted have far greater involvement in the issue than I did. I responded because one of my blog readers (wahine) suggested I comment. I did so in complete and blissful ignorance. I don’t know DePauw, have never been a part of the Greek system, never heard of Delta Zeta before, on and on. But I do have one clear bias from my many years of work in this business. Reporters all too frequently write a story in a way that seems more aimed at generating interest and readers than in any strict adherence to what is happening and the truth.

I stand by that assessment of this situation. One has become very clear as my knowledge of the situation has increased thanks to the many commenters here: the story is far more complicated than what the NYT reported. And that is a big part of my point. It is complicated. To suggest as they did, based on the bitterness expressed of some (but clearly not all) of the students involved that this was about discrimination against race and unattractiveness, was unfair, unwarranted, and way way too simplistic. As to what Delta Zeta leadership did wrong was not in my knowledge or purview. Same for DePauw leadership, except I noted the big difference between what the reporter said the role of the president was vs. Delta Zeta leadership–and subsequent information bears out a much higher degree of responsibility than the report indicated.

I realize that most who are following this story are doing so because they care about the university, the chapter, the sorority and other organizations or people closely involved. That is not my interest. I am a disinterested observer fascinated by how the media deals with complex stories. And, greatly concerned about how organizations and people can be so easily and callously hurt by media coverage that seems aimed at their own interests of attracting audiences rather than accurate, truthful, complete and comprehensive coverage of events.

Thanks again Michael, and please comment anytime.

Where are the media defenders re Delta Zeta?

My post on Delta Zeta has generated a lot of traffic and more comments than any other post so far. And a few other links, for example: (http://wagnercomm.blogspot.com/)

I kept looking for defenders against what I thought might be an overly aggressive and unwarranted attack on the reporting of the NYT. Instead, I found a lot of people very frustrated with this kind of media story which creates a headline out of essentially nothing.

Just a couple of additional comments. I wondered why I was seeing it this way and so many others seem to be accepting the NYT report at face value. I sort of think it is the old story of the frog in a beaker. Over the years (Ted Koppel and I attribute the change to the start of 60 Minutes) we have become accustomed to news and entertainment being completely blended. After all, what is this thing called “reality tv”? But as a society we have been remarkably uncritical of the implications of this. Neil Postman did his best in the late 70s I think, when he wrote Entertaining Ourselves To Death (this books ranks up near the McLuhan sphere in my mind). Too many good people have been hurt, too many good organizations have been severely damaged or destroyed, too much economic and life value wasted on the altar of media entertainment. This has been a primary theme of mine since 2001 when I started drafting Now Is Too Late. What continually amazes me and surprises me is that this insight about the harmful effects of infotainment still strikes a lot of people as new and innovative.

The other comment has more to do with how a story like this evolves. This is important for everyone in PR and crisis communication because the main point I wanted to make relating to this story is what happened to Delta Zeta is an accident waiting to happen to you. No one is safe from a media-created crisis. Now, this is pure speculation, so don’t think I really knew what went on.

I suspect one or more of the young women in the chapter who were asked to leave were unhappy about the action taken. They may have even noted that it seemed to them more than coincidence that the ones who were left were attractive while some of the others were not. It certainly is better to be a victim of a situation like this–particularly a victim of racial or attractiveness discrimination–than to accept that you were asked to leave because you did not meet a commitment standard. So they talked. And they may have even called a reporter. At some point someone did. “Did you hear about this sorority who dumped all the unattractive, non-white ladies?” If it got like this to Mr. Dillon, his ears would have perked up. He’s a good reporter. So the story was written in his mind. The headline was already there. Hey, let’s talk to the girls, get their story. Sure enough, it was all about discrimination. He talked to the University. The president was aghast. When he finally got around to talking to the sorority and found a considerably different story, he had a problem. Either dump the great headline and story to match that he had painstakingly researched, or accept that what they said was the truth and there was no story here. Let’s see, be honest, or get ink? Hmm. I think I will get ink. This is a good story. Ok, we’ll include what the sorority said, but we will so bury it, and add the suggestion that they really wouldn’t talk to us, to firmly attach the black hat. And so the story goes… As I said, pure speculation.

But, on the other hand, the communication from the sorority leaders was sorry at best. The statement sent to Good Morning America was completely confusing.While the letter on the website contained the relevant information that made it pretty clear and obvious that the report was maliciously bad, it was buried in the middle of the letter. An experienced communicator was badly needed here. The message on the website should have made it clear that the NYT report was completely off-based and deliberately ignored the key facts that the reporter was presented.

I know a lot of people have been hurt by this report. And an awful lot of people and good organizations continue to hurt by news people who are not bad people and not incompetent people, but people responding to the pressures of their job. And the rest of us need to understand, their job is not to report the truth. Their job is collect an audience for the sake of the people paying their bills–the advertisers. Let me repeat it. Their job is to collect an audience for the sake of the people paying their bills. If telling the truth lets them do it effectively, then fine. If not, then fine. That is way overstating it, but it is also very important that people start understanding the real situation we are in.

If you have any doubts about what I am saying, I beg you to get and view the outstanding PBS three part series, News War. You will see this New York Times story, plus all the garbage on PrimeTime, etc., in its proper light.

A Media-created crisis? The Delta Zeta Sorority Problem

A crisisblogger commenter requested my take on the Delta Zeta sorority crisis, and as I have had my head down in two solid days of meetings, I have to admit to only hearing a passing reference to some sorority problem in conversation. And that comment was, interestingly, that they kicked out everyone who wasn’t pretty.

So, I thought I would look at what this is all about. I found the New York Times story which ran on February 25. Then I looked up what Delta Zeta might have to say about this. What I found, from this quick little review, is a crisis vulnerability that faces far more organizations than most realize. At this point, I would put this one in the category of a media-created crisis and not a crisis created by egregious action on the part of the organization.

What the Times said happened: Some psych prof at DePauw did a survey and found the perceptions students had of the Delta Zeta sorority were “socially awkward.” The sorority, concerned about its image, responded by dumping all the less than attractive and popular women, all the overweight girls, and picking particularly on all the members of non-white races and colors.

Wow. Pretty damning. That is one bad bunch of ladies. They could only find a dozen that fit the profile of members they wanted, however half of them were so upset by the profiling and evictions that they quit. The president of DePauw was so upset at them that he wrote a long letter of reprimand. Then the newspaper story goes on to list the long history of other racial offenses this DePauw university chapter has had over the year.

Is this the truth?

Let’s hear what Debbie Raziano, the National President of Delta Zeta has to say:

– because of recruitment problems the organization voted to close the DePauw chapter last year to relieve the few women there from the duty of active recruitment

– The university denied the request saying that if they left now they couldn’t come back. The university asked the chapter to do a “membership review.”

– Based on this request the chapter asked who would be willing to aggressively recruit new members. The women who were “evicted” decided they did not want and therefore were given a certain period of time to leave.

– that was the sole basis for determining who would go or who would stay

If you look closely at the NYT story, you see that explanation barely covered in there. But it is completely lost in the spin of the story. Now, I am going to take what the sorority president says at face value here, partly because it makes sense and partly because the media’s behavior here falls so typically into the way the entertainment-based “news” media operates that this is too good to pass up.

The story the reporter had in mind was clearly made before he did any interviews. He was careful not to let the facts of the story interfere with the story he had already created in mind. Yes, he offered their explanation. But only after he says the officers “declined to be interviewed” but then provides emailed answers to questions (apparently to this reporter, only talking to him on the phone counts as an interview. Warning to communicators–beware the reporter who does not treat your email communication as legitimate response because you have a high degree of likelihood that they do not want a written record of what you provided. Gives you basis for complaint about being misquoted.)

In short, this looks to me to be an all too typical hack job. From the NYT no less–but after watching the three part series “News War” on PBS, my trust suspicions and mistrust about the news media has been amplified.

If what Delta Zeta says is right, there is a real problem with the president of DePauw. He might have had the opportunity as an objective third party to stop this train wreck from happening. If they are right in saying it was his actions that prompted their membership review and he put the pressure on recruitment, then for him to stand on the side and say oh my god look at those bad ladies is political but not honorable. I’d love to see his explanation.
I may not have this right at all. In my take on this, the NYT put the black hat squarely on the sorority and got complicity from the university president. If they are right, they not only don’t deserve this but the black hat should be squarely placed on the NYT. As for their crisis management of this–not good. If my understanding and interpretation is right, a lot stronger sense of righteous indignation against the paper and the university would be necessary for people to understand that this is one more example of name calling in order to grab headllines. What they did right, however, was put their statements–very poorly written and constructed–on their website and made them accessible to people like me sitting on the sidelines and making probably incorrect judgments about it all.