Perils of soundbites, overpreparation: Local PR leaders weigh in on Harvard saga

By Grant Welker – Projects Reporter, Boston Business Journal

Public relations professionals cringed as Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, answered the question from U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik on whether “calling for the genocide of Jews violate(s) Harvard’s rules on bullying and harassment.”

Gay’s repeated refusal to decisively answer what Stefanik insisted were yes-or-no questions at the hours-long Dec. 5 hearing sparked a backlash that led to her well-publicized resignation this week.

To Boston-area public relations professionals, the exchange highlighted a poor handling of the crisis that stretched from the days after the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas in Israel through instances in Gay’s early research of not adequately citing sources.


Flat, legalistic response’

Justine Griffin, a principal at Rasky Partners who specializes in crisis communications, said most people would expect a college president to talk passionately about the values of free speech or denouncing calls for violence.

But Gay, a professor of government and of African and African-American studies who joined Harvard’s administration last July, returned during the hearing to many of the same talking points on a binder in front of her.

“We embrace a commitment to free expression, even of views that are objectionable, offensive, hateful,” Gay said, repeating the phrase nearly verbatim a moment later.

“This was a very flat, legalistic response,” Griffin said. “This is the one place where your statements should be about values, and filled with emotion.”
To read the full article and learn more about Justine’s take, visit the BBJ website or click here.