Heading Off an Ethical Dilemma Before It Arrives at Your Doorstep

My late brother, Dr. Don Bagin, a noted guru and author in school communication, used to preach that the ability to anticipate was one of the leading skills of a great communication professional. He would urge his students to run “What-if-Scenarios” as part of a planning process for any new idea or program. This strategy would lead to developing Plans A and B or refining the idea to make it more effective. And, in some cases, it killed the idea entirely.

Recently an NSPRA colleague told me about a local news story and the community’s firestorm of comments carried in the local paper and its e-edition. What happened serves as a good example of the need to anticipate and run the “What-If-Scenarios” when developing a new program.

To protect everyone involved, I created a generic description and tweaked the situation a bit as it played out in a suburban community.

Going from a Wall of Fame to a Wall of Shame

A former high school athletic star and recognized local community member was recently convicted of sexual misconduct with a minor in his community. About 20 years ago, the star athlete was named to the local high school’s Wall of Fame and his photo and his accomplishments are still prominently recognized on the school’s wall. His own children now go to that school.

With circumstances surrounding the sexual misconduct, parents and others in the community are asking school officials to remove his high school accomplishments and photo and to also strip him of his Wall of Fame status. They note that they do not want their children to see his photo and to think that he serves as a role model for today’s students. The comment section online continues to grow — as they are apt to do these days — and has the community transforming the Wall of Fame into one of shame.

The Dilemma About the Next Steps Could Have Been Eliminated
Many school districts, corporations and even associations offer numerous outstanding achievement awards in one fashion or another. But how many of us run the “What-if-Scenarios” to cover a case in which an awardee could eventually become an embarrassment for the school, the corporation or the association? My guess is very few of us do that.

So, here are some thoughts on dealing with this sticky situation:

  • First, check with your legal counsel about the legalities of removing someone from the Wall of Fame.
  • Also, ask your lawyer to draft a new policy and an awardee letter of agreement to be considered as Board policy to cover any existing award program in your district in which you have the right to remove an awardee from the program based on criteria your lawyer creates.
  • When you start any new programs, make sure that you include the legal removal clause in the regulations of the program.
  • Before awards are given each year, have new awardees sign a letter of agreement which stipulates that the district has the right to remove awardees from the program based on the legal criteria your lawyer provides.

Reputation management is a key function of top communication professionals. Bad things do happen to great schools. But we need to find ways to prevent added damage by anticipating and using the “What-if-Scenarios” for all our communication programs.

Rich Bagin, APR
NSPRA Executive Director

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