Bus One Seven:Nudge From Grace
PR Turned its Back on Neil Goldschmidt
By Roderick Armageddon
Portland has seen a number of local faces reach national fame, whether Columbia Sportswear's Gert Boyle, Nike's Phil Knight, Art Alexakis from Everclear, or Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk. However there's one name that has always made Portland -and much of the nation- proud. That name is Neil Goldschmidt.
The man who directed the development of the nation's most revered public transit system, made Portland an urban planning Mecca, and prevented one of the city's most vital eastside neighborhoods from becoming a major freeway, lorded over Portland as mayor from 1973 to 1979 and as governor of Oregon from 1987 to 1991. Moving from local politics to national power as Jimmy Carter's Secretary of Transportation in 1979, Neil Goldschmidt was Portland's golden child for decades. His legacy has no doubt launched his recent consulting practice to record-high billings, capping a career that included serving Oregon's state board of higher education and the Oregon Electric Utility Co. The fact is, Goldschmidt is a perfect example of just how well a reputation can propel your own public relations program.
After thirty years of secrecy, Camelot fell to the burning flames of scandal just a month ago. In 1975 Goldschmidt made a severe misjudgment while in the height of his Portland reign. But his misjudgment was much more than a mere professional indiscretion; Goldschmidt committed an undeniably terrible act, sexually exploiting the 14 year-old daughter of one of his aids and neighbors -a trusted baby sitter for Goldschmidt's children. The sexual abuse lasted more than three years. Goldschmidt must have concluded that his exploitation of the girl had a profound effect on her life; he paid for counseling between the two before settling out of court in an effort to keep the story buried.
Unfortunately for Goldschmidt, the story has been unearthed and the fallout has been intense. While inevitable, the horror and backlash were stoked by an intriguing sequence of events that began when Portland's independent weekly newspaper, Willamette Week, sent a summary of their expose to Goldschmidt himself, asking for his review.
While Neil Goldschmidt's guilt is obvious, one major problem with this story is his lack of foresight and professionalism in admitting his guilt, publicly. Plain and simple, Goldschmidt failed the public relations test in admitting guilt after learning of his discovery. From an outright request that the Willamette Week hold back the story to feigning a career-ending heart condition in an effort to quell interest, Goldschmidt made a series of odd moves after learning of his past's exposure. Under advisement of his attorney, Goldschmidt made a number of decisions that beg the question, "just what the Hell were you thinking?" If you'd like to digest the entire story of his unraveling, read the Willamette Week's thorough story.
In the wonderful book, The Cluetrain Manifesto, co-author Doc Searles states very clearly that markets are conversations. This is a fundamental fact of communications strategy that far too few public relations professionals take seriously. While you can work overtime attempting to control the client's "message," your competitors, customers, stakeholders -or whoever your audiences may be- are talking. These audiences will talk whether you want them to or not. It's a PR professional's duty to do their very best to take part in that conversation, disseminating the corporate message while augmenting communications to best serve the conversations of the client's stakeholders. Public relations is not a static activity. With the advent of blogs and RSS, these stakeholder conversations are reaching much further then ever before, adding greater breadth to the conversations through wider, more diverse perception. Now more than ever, a public relations professional needs to embrace market conversations, ensuring their clients take part in them -or fall back and lose the race.
Unfortunately for Goldschmidt, someone -perhaps Gard and Gerber, the public relations agency where he met Willamette Week reporters or perhaps his attorney- allowed him to make a serious error in judgment, attempting to put out a fire that was well under way. While taking steps to diffuse a situation is worth considering, when the situation is well beyond your control, there has to be a point where you accept that the conversation has expanded beyond the realm where you can manage it.
As much as I can criticize their early actions -and I have- I applaud Neil Goldschmidt's counsel for moving to give the Oregonian the exclusive story, ensuring that the widest audience would get the greatest number of facts about the issue. Unfortunately factual, unbiased reporting is not a paramount feature of the Oregonian, so perhaps my applause is ill-suited. Regardless, when facts are not present, rumors grow and prosper, eating away at the foundation of the truth, inhibiting your ability to speak clearly in the conversation.
Aside from making a solid decision to go public with the Oregonian, one serious error in Goldschmidt's communication has remained, whittling away further at the man's already tattered credibility. Goldschmidt continues to refer to the ongoing sexual abuse of a minor as an "affair." Apparently he feels that the relationship was entirely voluntary, though he was 20 years the girl's senior. She went on to experience a difficult life, capped by a rape in Seattle and ongoing financial hardship, but I can't imagine that sexual abuse by a man more than twice her age had little or nothing to do with her later sense of worth, power and self-respect. Call it what you will, Neil, but ongoing sexual abuse of your employee's 14 year-old daughter (the babysitter of your children) is not only unethical and unforgivable, it's statutory rape.
Goldschmidt's professional counsel in the matter provided poor advice, at best. While it's perfectly acceptable to call a companywide layoff a "strategic downsizing, highlighting a corporate roadmap designed for streamlined success," calling rape an affair is downright careless and does little to show Goldschmidt's concern for bringing the situation to public closure with some sense of dignity.
One thing Doc Searles touches on in The Cluetrain Manifesto that needs to be pounded into every communication professional's head is the fact that while taking part in the conversation is a significant step, speaking truthfully, succinctly and in a timely fashion is most significant. Perhaps that's far too advanced for a high priced attorney or public relations agency to grasp -honesty, timeliness and brevity.
While Neil Goldschmidt made a life-altering decision for the worst, high-priced professionals are supposed to offer tested, ethical and strategic advice with the client's best interests in mind. Review that invoice clearly, Neil, I imagine you'll be hard-pressed to find a discounted line item for piss-poor, juvenile advice. I suppose you learned more than one lesson this time around.
Roderick Armageddon was recently indicted on charges of "tampering with the elemental substance of nature." He currently writes from his cell at the Umatilla County Justice Center in Pendleton, Oregon.