This is what PR dissembling looks like…

For those of you who don’t know, Karen Stollznow, sceptic, public speaker and author, revealed her account of how sexual harassment was dealt with in a recent Scientific American blog post. You can read that here.

Subsequent to this publication, multiple outlets are now naming the alleged sexual harasser/stalker, as the relatively high profile sceptic, Ben Radford. As I’m not privy to the details or evidence, I’ll not speculate on his guilt, but I suspect more details are going to come out in the wash at some point.

The employer, also not named in Karen Stollznow’s post, has since been named as the Center for Inquiry (CFI). CFI has now responded to all of this in typically boilerplate language. You can read their response in full, here.

For a moment ignoring the names, that have been named thus far, the personal politics, and the potential culpability of individuals in this matter, this is a strange document that borders on the meaningless. It’s almost a deepity in PR long-form.

“As a general rule, CFI does not discuss personnel matters in public. We refrain from discussing these matters in public not only out of consideration for our staff, but also because experience has shown that this is the best way to encourage people to come forward with complaints.”

In general yes, this is a good strategy. Especially before due process has worked its way through (something Karen Stollznow complied with).

But CFI is responding to a specific case here, and in this case Karen Stollznow has opted to go public owing to the alleged inadequacy of CFI’s process, and after the process has completed at that. Keeping things private in this context, is meaningless; CFI can’t keep it private because it’s already public, and it’s what CFI does under the veil of privacy that is in question.

People with potential complains seeing this case unfold, aren’t going to be worried about CFI’s ability to keep things in-house. Indeed, Stollznow, and about every other critic of CFI’s management, positively speak to CFI’s ability to maintain the hush.

Further, who’s decision is it, ultimately, to keep things quiet, or go public, if something has gone wrong? That’s not the organisation’s call, and unless we see court action deciding to the contrary, it was Karen Stollznow’s right to bring this to light.

What does CFI think people with complaints about harassment are more likely to be worried about – that CFI will go public with their information, if the issue is already public, or that CFI will decide of its own accord, without regard to the wishes of the person making the complaint, what level of openness is appropriate?

Yes, there are legal concerns about going public, for all parties, but in it’s release, CFI doesn’t cite this as a justification. CFI claims it doesn’t want to deter future complaints.

CFI’s response reduces the serious matter of privacy, from a human relations concern, to the level of marketing pablum.

And then things proceed to where the wheels really begin to fall off…

“However, we would like to make it clear that any suggestion that CFI has been less than diligent in addressing harassment complaints is mistaken. During the administration of current president and CEO, Ronald A. Lindsay, that is since July 2008, CFI has investigated all complaints that have been made to management, and, where necessary, has taken appropriate corrective action. “

On the face of it, this looks like a good thing, right? Investigating every case? Good-o.

“Neither allegations nor denials determine the actions CFI takes. The results of the investigation determine the actions taken by CFI. If CFI has employed an outside investigator, we go with the investigator’s findings; we do not substitute our suspicions. If the investigator found, for example, that a sexual assault occurred, we would accept that finding; likewise, if the investigator found that no sexual assault occurred, we would accept that finding.”

If you’ve read the whole release, you’ll notice that the remainder is mostly rhetoric in this vein, talking about rumor and gossip, while ironically not even vaguely citing any examples of rumor and gossip – CFI is gossiping about alleged gossip. While I’m not commenting on Ben Radford’s guilt, I wouldn’t dismiss Karen Stollznow’s concerns as “gossip”.

That aside, and to the point I want to make – CFI defers to investigators, in deciding the facts. It’s fair to say, that seeing as CFI acknowledged that sexual harassment did indeed occur, there are at least some facts between CFI and Karen Stollznow that are uncontested.

Furthermore, it’s the allegedly lax penalties for sexual harassment that were met out by CFI that Karen Stollznow disputes in her article. Are we to believe that CFI outsources it’s values as well, such that independent investigators also decide upon penalties, in addition to the facts of the case?

No. This is Ron Lindsay’s job, and the accusation is that he failed to appreciate the implications of the facts, such that remedial action was inadequate.

Raising the matter of independent investigators is an irrelevant act of self-promotion that (by design?) distracts people from the substance of Karen Stollznow’s concerns.

I’m not entirely sure that distracting attention from the substance of complaints, and dismissing them as gossip, is going to make people more comfortable with the prospect of making complaints to CFI. But if you’re not actually facing this prospect, and you can’t tease the implications out of the boilerplate language, then I guess CFI’s release would look nice and fuzzy.

I’m wondering how long they can manage to keep treating this matter like a PR issue, and making fatuous statements about privacy, instead of realizing that transparency about the process is the solution.

~ Bruce

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About Bruce Everett

Graduated from UniSA with a science degree, to become a carer with pretensions to the intelligentsia. Lumpenprole, latte-lefty from the Great Northern Wastelands of Adelaide, South Australia. Now writing with F-Bombs. View all posts by Bruce Everett

One response to “This is what PR dissembling looks like…

  • Doug Berger (@cadfile)

    These types of incidents are almost always kept private to protect the victim and to protect the company since it could be sued for creating a hostile work environment. I know that gives the perpetrator cover but if the company is really serious about stopping harassment then they should deal with the person correctly.

    I do think it is one thing for a victim to come forward and tell their story and something else if they decide to name names. There is too much of chance for abuse and like pedophilia once someone is connected to such an act they are labeled forever. We all need to be very careful when naming names.

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