Categories: Crisis management

20 June 2015

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The PR industry’s part in professor Tim Hunt’s downfall

Health warning 21st July, 2015: I made two errors in this piece that were pointed out by the author (Louise Bagshawe) and former British MP Louise Mensch.  I am pleased to note that I was not correct to write ‘nobody laughed’ because evidence has emerged demonstrating that there was laughter in response to Tim Hunt’s joke. I was also wrong to write that he made a fool of himself. In my defence, as Louise Mensch kindly tweeted,at the time he [I] wrote this, the falsity of the account of TH joke getting a ‘stony reception’ wasn’t known”. The new news merely strengthens what follows.

The recent expulsion of Tim Hunt, the Nobel prizewinning British biochemist, from both his professorship at University College London (UCL) and posts at the Royal Society, for telling a politically incorrect joke, exposes – yet again – how acting on modern PR mantras routinely undermines the very soul of institutions when a crisis strikes.

Hunt’s supposed crime was to make a clumsy joke, which was out of tune with contemporary sentiment. During an after-dinner speech in South Korea he said: “Three things happen when [girls] are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.” Nobody laughed.

There is no doubting that he made a fool of himself in public. Yet beyond his embarrassment at the audience’s proper response, that should have been the end of the matter.  But the Twitter and media mob launched a merciless shock-and-awe wave of outrage aimed at him, which turned an awkward moment into a career and reputation destroying one.

Two days later, Tim Hunt was forced to ‘resign’ from UCL. That was even though he was never asked for his side of the story, and even though there had been no pause for thought to assess whether the ‘outrage’ over a daft joke really justified firing him. Then in the same knee-jerk fashion he was effectively ejected from his role on the Royal Society’s Biological Sciences Awards Committee. The moral police at the Guardian newspaper called this near total destruction of a world-leading scientist a ‘moment to savour’. Ok, fair enough, you might say, but what has this got to do with misleading PR influences? Well, let’s review this from the perspective of where PR meets the worlds of UCL and the Royal Society.

Robin McKie, the respected science and technology editor for the Observer newspaper, interviewed Sir Tim Hunt and his wife, Professor Mary Collins, in their garden after the sacking. Two of the points that McKie made were these:

[Hunt’s] treatment also demonstrates the innate cruelty of social media, and in particular the savage power of Twitter, which first revealed the scientist’s transgression. The tale also demonstrates how PR departments, in trying to protect the reputation of institutions, often do so at the expense of the individuals who work for or make up those bodies.

I acknowledge, as I’m sure McKie does, that PR pros were not responsible for creating academic neurosis about gender issues. Concerns – real and imagined – about ingrained misogyny, racism, sometimes paedophilia, afflict numerous and diverse modern institutions. PR pros most likely had little to do with the development of speech codes, anti-harassment policies and safe-space policies that are now an integral part of university life. I worry about the warped and hyped neuroses dominating academic life. But I do concur with Brian Cox who opines that a lack of women in science is a problem; but who also accuses UCL of ‘hounding out’ a Nobel laureate and giving into ‘trial by social media’.

Cox’s and McKie’s insights help us to get a sense of perspective and to see some of the elements that unite UCL’s handling of its crisis with the management of nearly every other institutional meltdown we witness within society today. Let us take a closer look at those elements.

UCL’s and the Royal Society’s priorities appear to have been a/ to put their reputation first, even at the expense of one of their own people and natural justice b/ to align themselves with the morally outraged c/ to demonstrate their determination to act quickly, by lancing the boil, in order to take control of the narrative.

The question I ask is, where did they learn to think in such simplistic, formulaic and clearly unjust terms? Which industry advises public institutions to be self-consciously other directed (the others here being the outraged mob)?

For the vast majority of the PR industry and its academic wings, the notion that ‘reality is perception’ is a twenty-first century axiom and a cardinal operating principle. Now let’s dig a little deeper into the framework of best-PR-practice that guides most bodies – including, perhaps, UCL – when they get caught in a traditional and social media storm.

The orthodox rules of PR crisis management go something like this: a/ perception always trumps reality b/ the first 48 hours of a crisis are critical c/ be prepared to grovel d/ be prepared to over-react quickly to quieten things down e/ show you’ve reformed and then move on. In other words, the recommendation is that they adopt ARM (apologise, reform, move on) manoeuvres, whenever public opinion turns against them.

Nevertheless, while I’m 100 percent certain major corporations consciously adopt ARM strategies, I have no idea whether universities and Royal Societies do. But what is obvious, however, is that an excessive focus on political correctness and an understandable terror of Twitter and the media, leads to the adoption of similar quick-fix remedies to contemporary crises. But it is a delusional remedy because ARM reinforces insecurity and self-loathing and because it breeds distrust about motives and integrity.

Richard Levick, CEO of Levick Strategic Communications goes so far as to advocate that because perception trumps reality institutions should be prepared early on in a crisis to sacrifice a “brand, or the division or the person that is the cause [sic] of the problem”. In other words, forget about authenticity, integrity and challenging misconceptions and be prepared to betray one’s own staff or parts of your own institution. The advice from the PR industry is more often than not, concentrate on pleasing the hostile crowd so that they get off your back and leave you alone. Levick is no outlier (see How PRs advise firms to grovel and deceive)

Levick’s advice is backed by leading PR gurus such as Peter Sandman who says the core challenge of PR in a crisis is ‘outrage management’. He advocates that controversial industries – regardless of whether they believe they have sinned in the first place – should make a great virtue of adopting the ‘reformed sinner personna’. For example as BP did when it invested in its now discredited PR-led Beyond Petroleum ‘strategic’ re-branding (see How PR sells firms and trust short).

What got ignored by UCL and the Royal Society was that Tim Hunt was not a moral role model, but a highly respected professor. In their quest to live the quiet life, they ditched any consideration of or respect for their core purposes. Instead they made reputation management an end in itself. In other words, they surrendered their integrity to outraged trolls and lost all sense of perspective in their quest to tick the right boxes.

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2 responses to “The PR industry’s part in professor Tim Hunt’s downfall”

  1. Thomas says:

    Thanks for an excellent post, Paul. I hadn’t seen it when I wrote my own critique of UCL, but I’ve added you as footnote now.