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The Streisand Effect

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b2ap3_thumbnail_Barbra_Streisand_-_1966.jpgThese are not the headlines you want to see the day before your new museum opens:  

If Kennesaw State University administrators had not heard of the Streisand Effect* before, I bet they have now.

"The Streisand Effect is the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet" (source)

Setting aside questions about whether or not the artwork is actually controversial and why it became an issue so late in the game, let's look at it from a PR standpoint. I can imagine that President Papp was worried that the subject of the artwork might revive hard feelings about a controversial gift KSU received in 2008. But for cryin' out loud, if you think you have a problem that needs fixing, make sure the solution isn't going to make things worse.

Art critic Catherine Fox wrote, "How ironic that the president himself has put a damper on 'the celebratory atmosphere.' How ironic that he has brought the controversy to the surface, calling attention to it in a ways the piece never could."

So. What if you're the poor sap of a communications director who has to deal with the fallout?

b2ap3_thumbnail_censored.JPGWell, KSU's official response says that "concerns were raised" (which sounds a lot like a "mistakes were made" way of deflecting responsibility) about the appropriateness of the piece for the opening but that it will be shown at later unspecified time. The problem with this statement is that a concerned reader might wonder why the piece is appropriate at one time and not another. It doesn't give a satisfying answer to "why?" which will just incite more criticism. In fact, the entire two-paragraph statement is so vague and evasive it raises more questions than it answers.

An opportunity has been missed here to provide a narrative that will leave a much better impression:  Acknowledge the actual reason for the concern; accept responsibility; show some empathy for those who have been impacted; include a genuine apology (but avoid the non-apology apology); and give specifics about what you're doing to resolve the issue.

As a communications professional advocating for this type of response, be prepared for push-back. I find that many executives are scared to death of this kind of honesty. They may want you to use vague statements and weasel words until it blows over. You can remind them that by being more open and truthful, they will reduce the intensity and length of the public outrage. Most people can be very forgiving if they feel like they've been dealt with fairly.

Update: KSU has made an offer to reinstate the artwork. You can read the full story along with KSU's new (and much improved) statement here: KSU Agrees to Reinstate Censored Artwork; Artist Ruth Stanford Will Decide >


* In 2003, Barbara Streisand tried to have an aerial photograph of her home removed from the Internet. The photo had been taken as part of a collection of 12,000 images of the California coastline and had no indication that it was the superstar's home. Her lawyers' heavy-handed efforts to have the image suppressed greatly increased media attention and public awareness of the image.

For me, fundraising and communications go together like peanut butter and jelly – delicious & filling!

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