Thursday, July 26, 2012

Three Strikes You're Out?

I’m not a climate scientist, a lawyer or even an academic, but I do understand a few things about public relations and about universities and university fundraising.

(Full disclosure: I think Mark Steyn is pretty nifty.)

Anyway, I was looking at some of the updated articles about the Mann versus Steyn kerfuffle, from Politico here and Mark Steyn’s update here

Why should I care? 

Well, I’m finding the story interesting, and it’s my blog so I get to talk about what I find interesting.

So, here’s what I think-and this is purely from a public/media relations perspective-and these are things that I’m rather good at. 

I think that another massive PR disaster is the last thing that anyone within a 100 mile radius working inside or next door to the Penn State campus wants or needs. 

I think that every Penn State alumnus with a shred of decency, every alumni donor, every parent with a kid at that school, every kid on the football team and their families and friends, and every current student and faculty member and administrator with even the most minimal sophistication with respect to public relations understand that another PR hit on the magnitude of “Climategate” or Sandusky could ultimately lead to the financial bankruptcy and complete belly up of an institution whose complete moral bankruptcy already set the precedent. 
If you look at the Penn State home page, you will find no comment about the current brouhaha though it is all over the internet. What you will see is an item leading to the official reaction to the Louis Freech report on the Sandusky affair. 

Here’s an interesting paragraph: 

“The report, released after an eight-month investigation, indicates that University leaders in key positions failed to report suspicions of child abuse to proper authorities, and states that they concealed Sandusky’s actions from the Board of Trustees and the University community, as well as authorities.”


“The Board of Trustees, Freeh’s report states, failed in its oversight duties by not inquiring more extensively about University matters and not creating an environment where senior officials considered themselves accountable.”


This marks a new era for Penn State. With a mixture of humility and steadfastness we pledge to work closely and cooperatively with the administration in diligently facilitating open communication across all departments and levels of the University for the benefit of children on our campus and for the benefit of every part of the university,” Frazier added.

“The University leaders said that the Penn State community will come together to improve and remain a top university.”

“We are rightly proud of the many significant accomplishments of our faculty, staff, students and alumni,” Erickson said. “Penn State is a leading institution of higher education in the world. That will remain unchanged. With the help of our students, faculty, staff and alumni, Penn State will emerge from this as an even stronger and better institution.”

How inclined, do you think, is the university administration to face another high profile lawsuit, and take another massive PR hit on behalf of a senior administrator or faculty member? 

This document is from February 2010.

I looked at page 5:

Allegation 1: Did you engage in, or participate in, directly or indirectly, any actions with the intent to suppress or falsify data?

Finding 1. After careful consideration of all the evidence and relevant materials, the inquiry committee finding is that there exists no credible evidence that Dr. Mann had or has ever engaged in, or participated in, directly or indirectly, any actions with an intent to suppress or to falsify data. While a perception has been created in the weeks after the CRU emails were made public that Dr. Mann has engaged in the suppression or falsification of data, there is no credible evidence that he ever did so, and certainly not while at Penn State. In fact to the contrary, in instances that have been focused upon by some as indicating falsification of data, for example in the use of a “trick” to manipulate the data, this is explained as a discussion among Dr. Jones and others including Dr. Mann about how best to put together a graph for a World Meteorological Organization (WMO) report. They were not falsifying data; they were trying to construct an understandable graph for those who were not experts in the field. The so-called “trick”1 was nothing more than a statistical method used to bring two or more different kinds of data sets together in a legitimate fashion by a technique that has been reviewed by a broad array of peers in the field.

Decision 1. As there is no substance to this allegation, there is no basis for further examination of this allegation in the context of an investigation in the second phase of RA-10

Read that carefully. 

Then note the delightful footnote at the bottom of the page: 

1 The word trick as used in this email has stirred some suspicion. However, trick is often used in context to describe a mathematical insight that solves the problem. For example, see in a classic text on quantum mechanics by David Parks: "The foregoing explanation of the velocity paradox involves no new assumptions; the basic trick, the representation of a modulated wave as the superposition of two (or more) unmodulated ones, has already been used to explain interference phenomena..." pg. 21, Introduction to Quantum Theory, David Parks, Third Edition, Dover 1992  

On page 6: 

“…when one does due diligence on this matter, and asks about what papers were involved, one finds that enormous confusion has been caused by interpretations of the emails and their content.”

On page 7:

“It is the case that there has been a public outcry from some quarters that Dr. Mann and his colleagues did deviate from what some observers claim to be standard academic practice. All disciplines and scientific fields work within broad bounds of “accepted scientific” practice that apply to all researchers. However, within different disciplines of science there are additional elements of accepted practice that may be specific to those disciplines and therefore are different from those of other disciplines and fields. For example, accepted practices in a field of pure mathematics, such as number theory, may differ markedly from those in a field such as socio-biology. This is axiomatic. That said, the committee could not make a definitive finding on this allegation for reasons that follow.”

These past hits should be considered case studies in higher education media and public relations crises. 

From my perspective, Penn State really can’t afford another one. 

This does not, by the way, mean that there aren’t other institutions-educational, religious, private businesses, governments and politicians in North America, and throughout the world busy burying scurrilous activities, and furiously trying to spin their way out of craptastic behaviour, actions and statements. There are-look at the growing backlash to President Obama’s “You Didn’t Build That” reveal (and it was a reveal, and not a “gaffe”) and the legions of fart-catchers and message massagers who are in 24/7 damage control mode, trying to walk it backwards.

It’s impossible to make these PR disasters go away. 

The more sensible strategy is to try to avoid them completely. 

But Penn State has had two rather robust public strikes against it, and a third strike and well, you know-they could be out.

UPDATE: "Victim 2" to sue.