Thursday, December 22, 2005

A Wrecked Reputation 

Seoul National University in Korea has a scandal that has tarred the school. Its star researcher in embryonic stem cells, a personality honored by science societies worldwide, might be a fraud. The school is doing the only thing it can to stem the crisis. It is sifting the evidence. But the damage is done and the reputation of the researcher, Hwang Woo-suk, and that of the university will never be quite the same again, even if the university should prove that Woo-suk wasn't cheating. Worse, it takes time to find out the truth. Meanwhile rumors and charges continue to fly.

Does this sound like most crises? It does and it is. PR practitioners can talk all they want about preserving a company's reputation in a crisis, but it's difficult to do when evidence isn't there. It is only now, months after Hurricane Katrina, that facts behind allegations are coming out, and it turns out individuals and organizations charged with recklessness had done their jobs. Recent stories appear to indicate that many who drowned in New Orleans had offers of transportation out of the city but refused to take the offers. Further, charges that the Army Corp of Engineers had failed to build canal walls correctly were inaccurate.

So who failed and who is to blame? It will take months and maybe years to sort out, but journalists and the public are impatient. They want answers now. They want to know good guys and bad and get on with assigning blame. Crisis PR doesn't stand a chance in an environment like this. Seoul University has learned this lesson, as well as anyone in charge during the New Orleans disaster. PR practitioners should give up the notion that crises are controllable. Some are: Most aren't. It is a matter of doing the best one can under harsh circumstances.


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