Saturday, June 29, 2013

The ongoing PR problem that is pissing me off

For the last two years I have been watching “skeptics” dissing skeptic organizations, calling for boycotts, and demanding resignations of the leaders of these organizations. As someone who cared deeply about the promotion of skepticism, and was willing to support organizations who had this mission, the ugliness has been very disheartening. Why? Because the people doing the dissing are people whom skeptics were too willing to encourage, by giving them a platform and applause, while being unwilling to seriously consider whether they deserved our support.

Recently, a discussion transpired on a Facebook thread where Matt was dismissed with nasty snark by a JREF employee. The question under discussion was why people would go to South Point during TAM while not actually attending TAM. He pointed out that people may have developed great friendships through the years which they would like to maintain while, at the same time, being hesitant to provide continued financial support to an organization with which you have disagreements for whatever reason.

Now Matt and I have been generous financial donors to skeptic endeavors, but have at times had concerns (which we have communicated to staff members of these organizations). Matt’s comment on that Facebook thread did not specify what our concerns have been.

Unfortunately, from many of the comments on that thread, I gather that we’re all supposed to be “Rah, Rah, everything JREF and TAM!” And if we’re not, we shouldn’t be going to South Point to connect with friends (and continue to collect data so that we can make an informed decision about financial support of skeptic endeavors). I guess people like Matt and I are supposed to make our financial decisions in a vacuum. Not go to TAM to see if issues we have raised with the JREF have been addressed, but instead, assume that everything is just peachy keen and keep writing those checks. Well, we don’t have to go to TAM now because we know our biggest concern hasn’t been addressed. This is our biggest concern:

Every major skeptical organization in the US seems to be lacking in public relations expertise. I’m not talking about phony-sounding marketing bullshit, like non-skeptic organizations might engage in. I’m talking about people who know how to handle the public in such a way that they are likely to attract, rather than push away, donors and supporters. That means maintaining the loyalty of their current donors, and appealing to new donors, by treating people with courtesy while fulfilling their stated mission.

This snarky crack from a JREF employee on that Facebook thread is not the first time that Matt and I have been treated with a complete lack of courtesy and professionalism by a JREF employee. We once were likened to freeloaders because, despite a large donation during the ‘Season of Reason’ campaign, we were told we couldn’t volunteer at a vendor table because we hadn’t registered for a sold out TAM. No mention was made of our continued support of the JREF through the years. This initial refusal was not only made to us; the vendor, who knew nothing of our past level of support of the JREF, was also informed. This was not a pleasant experience for us, having our characters publicly maligned.

How awful of us to be willing to forgo our seats so that others would have the opportunity to attend, but be willing to go to South Point to connect with friends and help with other skeptical endeavors. D.J. did correct this mistake, when we pointed it out to him, and resolved the issue by providing us with ‘free’ passes. (And being people of honor, we did NOT take advantage of those ‘free’ passes by actually attending the conference or availing ourselves of any food or beverages for which we had not paid.)

When on the Facebook thread we suggested to this snarky employee that she check with D.J. as to why we were provided with ‘free’ passes to stand in the hallway, she responded that it was irrelevant because paid registration or not we were still registered for TAM, and why should she care? Nailed us on a technicality! HAH! Since that employee doesn’t care, I see no reason why we should continue to protect the JREF by not making this public relations debacle public.

Some assurance that the JREF can be successful in fulfilling its mission is all we ever wanted for our donations. Just do the job, while not causing us concern that the JREF can’t get the donations it needs because staff members don’t know how to deal with the public or keep their donors happy when they make reasonable requests.

A better response to Matt on that thread from a JREF employee would have been something like this: “Matt, I am concerned about your expression of some dissatisfaction with TAM and the JREF. The JREF wants feedback so that we can make improvements in fulfilling our mission. Please feel free to contact the JREF, via phone or e-mail, if you have concerns which you feel need our attention.”

That response has fuck all to do with how much money we have given in the past. People who understand the importance of public relations make no assumptions about whom they are speaking to. That person might be the next Johnny Carson or Rick Adams type of donor. Furthermore, when you’ve fucked up, you apologize. We have not received an apology.

The next hire I want from the skeptic organizations we support are people with some business acumen and public relations skills. And, gaining that expertise, they should teach all staff members about how to deal with the public.

Rebecca and others, with their insistence that the skeptic community is unsafe for women, have been a P.R. nightmare. It’s made national news. Skeptic organizations needed to do damage control by addressing these issues in a professional manner, not by engaging in internet pissing matches. As Lindsay, Shermer, and Grothe have all engaged in these pissing matches, I think our concern that these organizations do not have needed expertise in public relations is justified.

Now you know why we aren’t keen on handing over a lot more money to, and putting on a public face of unquestioning support of, the JREF until we feel this issue has been addressed, particularly when public relations mistakes are continuing to be made on Facebook threads without apology. Thanks, JREF, for yet another slap across the face. It’s made me willing to take a slap at every skeptic who fails to apply their critical thinking skills to who and what they are willing support. To be the best that we can be, we have to be willing to take a cold, hard look at what our organizations and spokespeople are doing, and raise our voices when we see behavior which is counterproductive to the mission of promoting skepticism. I don’t give a damn about the points of view of leaders and spokespeople, if they are expressing those points of view in a manner which proves them to be bad role models for skepticism. This behavior is not a good public look for skepticism, and these organizations and spokespeople need to do better. That means accepting their past shortcomings, doing their best to understand those shortcomings, and learning to do better. Any organization or spokesperson that claims to be promoting skepticism, but fails to demonstrate a willingness to own their mistakes, apologize for them, and provide us with some assurance that they will do their best to be more introspective in the future, does not deserve our support.