September-October 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 7

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Lessons Learned from a
Public Controversy

by Donald C. Reitzes, Mindy Stombler, Kirk W. Elifson, Georgia State University

Early in February of this year, we were inadvertently the center of a controversy that played itself out in the local and national media and in our state legislature. Labeled as "sex experts" in the press and on the floor of the Georgia House of Representatives, there was a call, under the guise of cutting waste in government spending, to reduce the state appropriation to our university by eliminating our salaries. Indeed, there was concern the publicity surrounding our work would negatively affect the entire University System budget. By the end of March, however, we found that there were some unexpected positive consequences of our notoriety. Now that things have settled down, we offer nine lessons from our adventure as a cautionary tale for sociologists.

Lesson #1
Be judicious about what you list in your university’s
"media guide" or other outreach to the press and public.

In our case, our university passed out media guides to legislators who mistook them for course listings. The guide was originally intended to provide reporters with access to professors willing to provide "insights" on and "analysis" of issues in the news. Mindy included "oral sex" and Kirk "male prostitution"—among a long list of topics. Needless to say, these do not reflect the totality of our teaching and research interests. However, we were reduced to being labeled as, for example in Mindy’s case, an "oral sex expert" by legislators and the media (you can imagine the fun the press had with this sexual innuendo). So, while we will not be changing our listings, we suggest that faculty take a reflective stance and frame their research from the outset in a manner that allows them to be comfortable speaking as experts to audiences across cultural divides and political perspectives.

Lesson #2
When contacted by reporters you do not have to respond or respond immediately—in fact it is better to wait.

Once the story broke, we were inundated with calls and e-mails from reporters. A colleague in the communications department offered this sage advice (that we now share)—"when a professor is contacted he or she should not agree immediately to an interview, but should let the call or contact roll to voice mail and then be in immediate contact with University Relations…turn the matter over to the professionals." Fortunately, we discussed each media probe with University Relations and let them serve as the first "responder." By the time we called back, it was from a position of strength. We knew who they were and had some sense of what they wanted and the "angle" the media representatives wanted to take toward us and "the story."

Lesson #3
You are not alone—or at least we were not alone—and we recommend taking advantage of the institutional resources and professional staff to provide guidance and assistance.

We had several long discussions with our school’s University Relations staff in preparation for our testimony. University Relations staff then literally walked us over to the capitol and sat with us. In addition, both our liaison to the legislature and a representative of the university-system were with us at the hearings. We were instructed to defer to the university and system official if any questions arose about academic freedom matters. Nothing of the sort happened but it was reassuring to know that we had the people in place to step in and handle the situation.

Lesson #4
Know your audience or adversary, and go for an effective response, even if it is not the most emotionally satisfying response.

It would have been satisfying at various points in the hearings to launch into a passionate defense of the role of an independent professorate and of our right to discuss oral sex and male prostitution in our classes. Instead, Kirk began his testimony by recounting that when he was an officer in Vietnam he was asked to investigate incidents of sexually transmitted diseases among U.S servicemen. Later in the 1980s he received a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant to study the sexual transmission of AIDS. Mindy noted that she was surprised that many of her students did not consider oral sex a form of sexual intercourse, and that they apparently did not know that there were potential health risks associated with oral sex. There was a noticeable change in the atmosphere of the hearing after our testimony. The public health and well-being significance of our work was suddenly apparent. What worked with this audience was to appeal to them as parents, patriots (as in Kirk’s case), and as citizens and legislators deeply concerned with the health and welfare of the people of Georgia.

Lesson #5
When challenged, it usually is better to respond calmly and professionally and not to further inflame the situation.

Mindy, in particular, had to deal with insulting voice messages and e-mails. While she had the right to ignore them, she calmly and professionally responded to each one—finding usually that the caller/e-mailer did not truly want to continue insulting her after speaking with her. Mindy also found herself threatened on hate group websites and contacted the police who were able to assess relative danger and best response tactics. She still wants to call some conservative radio personalities but promises to lay low!

Lesson #6
It’s not over until it’s over.

We thought that the success of our testimony and its positive accounts would end interest in the story. Well, not exactly. CNN waited several days, possibly for the beginning of their sweeps, and then repeated all of the false accusations about our "course offerings" (that had already been presented accurately by this time in the local Atlanta newspapers). What became clear was that salacious headlines geared to ratings drove a renewed interest in the story.

Lesson #7
Students can be a big help.

Our colleague in communications, after acknowledging that our testimony helped us, proceeded to note that what was even more effective was that when talk radio picked it up, a number of Mindy’s students called in unprompted and gave very compelling accounts of her as a teacher. Former students wrote unsolicited letters to the legislators as well (we discouraged current students from participating in the battle).

Lesson #8
Contact your professional organizations.

We didn’t. However, they contacted us. We did not reach out to professional organizations because at the time it felt like we were engaged in a local fight, and because it seemed we could "handle it" on our own (and ultimately we did). Nevertheless, our professional organizations, including the ASA, the National Sexuality Resource Center (NSRC), and the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS) were wonderful sources of support.

Lesson #9
There were some unintended positive consequences.

While not wanting to ignore how stressful, intense and unpleasant the controversy was at times, there were, in the end, some pleasant surprises. We each received a telephone call from the Chancellor of the University System of Georgia thanking us for our efforts and expressing satisfaction in how well we represented the University System of Georgia. We also heard from hundreds of colleagues around the nation supporting us. These messages renewed our own sense of excitement about our teaching and research and enhanced our feeling of membership in a strong and active community. We are thankful for that. logo

 

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