Pop Culture + PR: How Not to Deal With an Angry Community (or How RWA Mangled Its Response to the Nazi Romance Catastrophe)

Within public relations, the idea of community stems from the definition of a public in The public and its problems by John Dewey in 1927.

“Dewey states that a public arises “when a group of people: (1) face a similar indeterminant situation; (2) recognize what is problematic in the situation; (3) organize to do something about the problem” (1927, p. 109). While the definition has shifted within discourses over time to include the utilization of advanced digital technologies, Dewey highlights the act of publics working together to solve a communal problem.” — Jamie Ward (Riding the Wave: How the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge used storytelling and user-generated content to embrace slacktivismChapter in a forthcoming edited volume by Hutchins and Tindall, ask for permission to access the document)

In public relations theory, scholars have argued that “public relations should be looked upon as a process of building and preserving communities–versus the adversarial (and often reactionary) reconciliation of organizational and public goals” (Hallahan, 2003). In Hallahan’s 2003 article, he argues for the professional identity of public relations practitioners to be oriented toward community building: “Community building involves the integration of people and the organizations they create into a functional collectivity that strives toward common or compatible goals.” This is a practical, tangible outcome for public relations work.

Hallahan explained:

Community building implies that public relations is a proactive (versus reactive) endeavor that focuses on the positive and functional, rather than the negative and dysfunctional. Community building also redirects PR’s focus away from its institutional focus and slavish emphasis on achieving organizational goals (Karlberg, 1996; Dozier & Lauzen, 2000; Holtzhausen, 2000) to address community citizenship. Community building provides a
framework that can be used by both established (system) organizations and emerging (lifeworld) social movements or causes. Community building squares with the definition that public relations establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships which an organization’s or cause’s success or failure depends (Cutlip, Center & Broom, 1999). This shift also moves public relations away from an emphasis on control–what Bernays (1955) called “the engineering of consent”— to the two fundamental functions that public relations performs: providing counsel about community interests and facilitating communication. In short, community building is a broader and nobler metaphor that practitioners can rally around.

Thus, community and community management are BFDs, especially to me as a communicator and a scholar who studies communication. This all leads me to the debacle happening with the Romance Writers of America. (Disclosure: I was a member of the Romance Writers of America, and I was going to pay dues this year. This whole issue has me questioning if I want to do, but I digress.)

Shortened long story: The Nazi romance novel For Such a Time garnered accolades from a romance-writing competition. Romances about Nazis aren’t good, but having the protagonist fall in love at a concentration camp with a Nazi commander enters the territory of WTF-ville. (To learn more about the affair, Newsweek covers the entire debacle.)

RWA tried to contain the matter with a statement, released several days after the Twitter and Facebook backlash ensued. The statement reads:

The Board of Directors of the Romance Writers of America (RWA) has received a great deal of heartfelt and moving feedback about some of the finalists in this year’s RITA contest. We want the membership to know we have heard your concerns and have spent days discussing them.

The question that we must answer is what RWA as a writers’ organization should do when issues arise regarding the content of books entered in the RITA contest. Discussions about content restrictions inevitably lead to concerns about censorship. Censoring entry content is not something the Board supports. If a book is banned from the contest because of its content, there will be a move for more content to be banned. This is true, even especially true, when a book addresses subjects that are difficult, complex, or offensive.

There were 2,000 entries in the RITA contest this year. The RITA is a peer-reviewed award. There is no vetting of content before a book may be entered. Books are entered, not nominated, and those books are judged by fellow romance authors. The Board believes this is how the contest should be run. RWA does not endorse the content of any book entered in the contest. We do believe, however, that education and conversation are important in dealing with the concerns expressed. To that end, we will open an online forum on the RWA website for members to discuss their concerns. This is not a perfect solution, but we believe open dialogue, not the censorship of content, is the right way to handle the issues expressed.

Let’s pull apart this statement using Coombs’ Master List of Reputation Repair Strategies. Any organization or person can use multiple strategies at the same time, and RWA did. In one statement, it pulled out several tricks:

  1. Scapegoating: “crisis manager blames some person or group outside of the organization for the crisis.” This statement used the big bad wolf of censorship as its foil. (The challenging of book based on its content can be presumed to be censorship. However, as several comments on the posts and several bloggers have stated, this is an issue of lack of historical accuracy, agency and consent, and anti-Semitism. Also, this lurches into the discussion of diversity in publishing, especially the romance sector, but that is another discussion for another day.)
  2. Excuse: “crisis manager minimizes organizational responsibility by denying intent to do harm and/or claiming inability to control the events that triggered the crisis.” The specific excuse tactic was good intentions (“organization meant to do well”) and accident (“lack of control over events leading to the crisis situation”) as well as an assumed defeasibility stance (“lack of information about events leading to the crisis situation”).
  3. Compensation: The organization promises a gift of dialogue, with the purpose of education and conversation.

In my opinion, this statement is an insult to those who are troubled (deeply and sincerely) by the content of the statement and the awards process. It is an insult to have their concerns swept into the fray of “censorship” and “suppression.” It’s a statement that glorifies surface discussions about diversity that won’t amount to anything or won’t require the DNA of the organization to shift and bend in the direction of inclusion and emotional justice. This statement is a flowery statement that says everything and nothing in 262 words. As I reviewed this statement, I thought about the idea of community in PR once again.

Our theory is that public relations is better defined and practiced as the active attempt to restore and maintain a sense of community. –Kruckeberg & Starck (1988, xi)

As public relations scholar who believes in the idea of community, this statement did not build community or address the needs of all the members of the community.The statement appeased some who applauded the organization for standing up against censorship, and others were disappointed that the organization chose a soft, easy way out of talking about diversity, agency, consent, and other problematic elements in mainstream romance fiction. As a community, romance writers were split about the value of RWA, and now the split has grown wider and more fractious. Like Humpty Dumpy, RWA’s effort may not put that community back together again.

Readers, what do you think? Was the apology spot on or was it a miss?