July 31, 2014
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Insult comic rocks RIT Events, PR musings

I received a crash course in crisis communications last week. And it was all thanks to comedian Lisa Lampanelli, who performed in Clark Gym March 23, and her outrageous remarks on the Brother Wease radio show back in January.

Bob Finnerty approached me on Monday and filled me in on the controvery. Lampanelli had made derogatory remarks about deaf people on the show, and those comments were beginning to trickle out to the RIT community. Many were expressing their shock and outrage that Lampanelli would be allowed to perform on this campus. Bob wanted me to be aware of the situation in case it got any bigger.

And it did.

Next thing you know, I was sitting in a meeting with RIT President Al Simone, various representatives from the Division of Student Affairs, and a number of student leaders—including several who were deaf and hard of hearing. The meeting’s purpose was to discuss whether or not Lampanelli’s show should continue as planned. I was a fly on the wall. My job was to listen to the discussion, learn its outcome and prepare a strategy on how to best share RIT’s decision with the local media.

After a lengthy and spirited discussion, the decision was made to allow the show to continue. It was the type of decision that was going to make one large group of people very happy and another large group very upset. In other words, we had a controversy on our hands. It was only a matter of time before this would leak to the media…and I needed to get ready.

First, we had to determine who our spokespeople would be. They had to have intimate knowledge of the background behind the decision and be comfortable speaking to the media. We selected Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Heath Boice-Pardee and Student Government President Lizzie Sorkin, who happens to be deaf. Then, I had to help them prepare what they wanted to say. Using my notes from the meeting, I developed a series of talking points for each individual.

Dr. Simone issued a letter to the RIT community on the subject Thursday afternoon, explaining the decision. Then the waiting game began. Now that a formal letter was out in the community, the media would be calling at any time. Bob got the first call, from D&C reporter Greg Livadas, shortly after 5 p.m.

And so it began.

The D&C piece ran Friday morning. Then Lampanelli made a return trip to the Brother Wease show, where she continued to use deaf people as a punch line. And then, the television stations came calling. All of them. Channel 13 was on campus by 11 a.m. Channel 10 ran a segment on its noon broadcast, featuring interviews with Lampanelli and Wease. Channel 8 and R News followed in the afternoon/evening. And that was before the doors to the show even opened!

Reporters from Channel 13, Channel 10, Channel 8, R News, the D&C and the Henrietta Post were on hand Friday evening to cover the protest that was being organized by the deaf community. Thankfully, the protest was peaceful.

When all was said and done, despite the unfortunate hurt that was caused by the incident, I think it served as an example of what a free society should be—both by what went on inside Clark Gym Friday night, and what went on outside of it. In the coming weeks, we’ll continue to see free speech in action. A forum will be held to discuss this type of humor. Where is the line between humor and harmful disrespect? Why do some people find this type of content humorous? It’ll be an interesting and open discussion—exactly the type of discussion that should take place at a prestigious insitute of higher education like RIT.

 
  1. Paul Stella
    Mar 28

    So often, an organization's response, or even lack of response, can take a bad situation and make it worse. I think RIT and its leadership took the appropriate steps to ensure that the controversy didn't get out of hand. That's the best we could ask for. John, kudos to you for handling your first real foray into crisis communications so professionally. A lot of old-timers could take a lesson from you.

  2. Greg
    Apr 01

    Yeah, that Livadas is always on top of things. Just wondered if you heard what Lampanelli said in her show and how it was taken?

  3. John Follaco
    Apr 04

    Yeah, we can't seem to sneak anything by that Livadas character :-) Lampanelli was outrageous, as one would expect. She didn't back away from her remarks and continued to bash almost everybody—including the deaf community. The crowd, knowing what it was getting when it bought tickets, seemed to take it all well. I'm just glad it's over.

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