Monday, January 30, 2012

U of M Child Porn Case: A Study in Crisis Communication

In a story that made everyone's blood run cold, a resident physician specializing in pediatrics at the University of Michigan was arrested in December after investigators found child pornography on his computer. If that wasn't bad enough for you, it now turns out that another doctor found child pornography on a thumb drive at the hospital last May, determined to whom it most likely belonged, and reported it to her superiors, who assured her it was being dealt with according to protocol. It wasn't reported to the police until November.

So, let's get the righteous indignation out of the way first. If you're thinking, "Penn State," you're not alone. There seems to be a complete inability or unwillingness in certain circles to recognize that you report this sort of thing not because you are absolutely sure who did it or to whom, but because you want the police to try to make sure they don't do it to anybody again. Child porn is not a victimless crime. Not reporting it because you're not completely sure whose it is is like not reporting a burglary because you didn't see the burglar.

One of the huge mistakes leaders and organizations tend to make at moments like this is to think solely about what information they want to transmit, without thinking about what the recipient needs to hear. In this instance, the University could have issued a statement that said, "We were not required to report this under Michigan law. We followed procedures. We are now reviewing our procedures to see if they need to be revised." All of that would be true, and it would only serve to make people more angry.

But Michigan did something different. They appear to have recognized that, in addition to factual information, the public needs to know that the University knows this was wrong. Today, the CEO of the University of Michigan Health System wrote a blog post addressed to employees. In part, she wrote:
Early findings have identified significant problems with how initial reporting of these allegations was handled. . . . In situations like this when there are mistakes in how such a situation was handled, human nature makes us want to quickly identify and resolve the problem. However, jumping to quick conclusions and making assumptions with partial information isn’t the answer. That’s why the University is engaged in a comprehensive review into what went wrong in this particular case. This review and taking appropriate action are top priorities. . . . We will make improvements to prevent this from happening again.
This is crisis communication done right. It doesn't make excuses. It doesn't say we were right and the public is wrong. It doesn't try to downplay the significance of the problem. It takes responsibility and gives a plan for future action. It includes both what they want to say and what we need to hear.

I can't excuse this situation, and neither can the University of Michigan. It makes me nervous that someone suspected of having child pornography was treating children, in the hospital my family uses, for 6 months after the suspicion first occurred. But let me tell you, I'd rather bring my kids to a hospital that knows that was a mistake and is working to fix it than to one that doesn't.

Go blue.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Why Blame Is a Bad Idea: Death at Cummings Middle School

Everything about this story is wrong.

Based on as yet very sketchy reports, here's what we know:

An 8th grader at Cummings Middle School in Brownsville, Texas, showed a gun in the hallways at school this morning. Police were called. They ordered him to drop the gun. He didn't. He appeared to aim it at them. They shot him. He died. The gun turns out to have been an air pellet gun.

When I say that everything about this is wrong, I don't mean to imply it's not true. It's just wrong. It doesn't fit the model of a good day at middle school, certainly, but it doesn't even fit the model of a bad day. A kid is either armed or he's not -- none of this pellet gun stuff. He either wants to die and kills himself or doesn't and puts down the gun. The violence is either threatened or real. This entire episode occupies this weird no-man's land between the possibilities our brains know how to deal with.

Given that , perhaps it's not surprising that everything about the press coverage is wrong, too. The headlines read things like, "Brownsville police kill teen at middle school." While technically accurate, it sure leaves a lot of important information out.

Whose fault is this? The kid, for bringing the gun in the first place and refusing to drop it and aiming it towards police? The police for shooting when the kid wasn't actually lethally armed? The school for calling the police? The parents for this kid having access to the pellet gun in the first place?

I don't think I've ever seen a case that both so clearly begs you to blame someone and so clearly illustrates why blame gets in the way of healing. Now that this incident is over, we can all point to numerous places people "should" have done things differently. But by "should," we mean "if they had, this probably would have had a different outcome." That's really different than saying that the outcome is their fault. It's so easy to confuse "should have" with "I wish they would have" or even "next time, I hope they don't."

This happened. Period. It will never have not happened. Everyone involved in it has to make peace with that fact. While preventing it in the future may be a priority, accepting it as part of the past has to happen, too. The messy question of whose fault it was can only get in the way of that process.

Meet the Quarterback

My Photo
Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
View my complete profile

Subscribe via email

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Quarterback for Kindle