Part 1 of a 4-part Communication Intelligence Special Series
Leaders making highly-opinionated and high-risk public communication
The story that is being examined for this series is the one where Ilya Shapiro, a new hire as a senior lecturer and executive director of the Georgetown Center for the Constitution, a part of the law school at the university, communicated a tweet that he came to regret, yet believes was misinterpreted.
While many called for his termination, after some thought, his superiors have decided instead to suspend him.
What did Shapiro communicate to cause unrest, hurt and anger? In regards to President Joe Biden’s promise to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court, Shapiro responded in a clumsy, at least, if not unprofessional and offensive manner.
The tweet: “Objectively best pick for Biden is Sri Srinivasan, who is solid prog & v smart. Even has identify politics benefit of being first Asian (Indian) American. But alas doesn’t fit into the latest intersectionality hierarchy so we’ll get lesser black woman. Thank heaven for small favors?
“Because Biden said he’s only consider[ing] black women for SCOTUS, his nominee will always have an asterisk attached. Fitting that the Court takes up affirmative action next term.”
Shapiro did apologize and at length and with apparent sincerity. Yet is that enough for communicating a belief, as a public figure, that was considered dismissive and condescending?
Georgetown University’s Black Law Students Association demanded Shapiro be fired.
“My initial thoughts are that as a leader and corporate ambassador, Shapiro showed extremely poor judgment in sending out his tweet without vetting it before posting,” says Julie Livingston, owner of WantLeverage Communications and a public relations and integrated marketing executive.
“He implied that President Biden would be wrong in nominating a black, female judge to the Supreme Court, which can be construed as demeaning. Secondly, his tweet goes against the core values of his current employer — The Cato Institute — and future employer, Georgetown Law.”
Shapiro therefore put his bosses in a stressful, painful place, which can’t be helpful for his professional relationships with them.
“In today’s divided political climate, no organization wants to be seen as racially biased. Unfortunately, the poor selection of language used on Twitter where every character counts, may have also added to Shapiro’s woes,” Livingston says. “Did (Shapiro) mean to say that Biden shouldn’t have made public what his intentions were before nominating a Supreme Court justice? By doing so, Biden left himself open to extreme public criticism. Yet, Shapiro didn’t provide such context.”
Critics of Shapiro are of the mind that he has forfeited trust for a leadership position to the point where he is unemployable. Shapiro did receive some support in the media yet whether Georgetown leaders can allow him to stay becomes the question.
“In this case, I think that Shapiro shot himself in the foot because the organization he was to join, Georgetown Law and the Georgetown Center for the Constitution, prides itself on being politically correct, especially during this time when race relations are so fraught in our nation,” Livingston says.
“Although it’s possible that Shapiro’s tweet was wrongly framed, once a statement is made public, it’s difficult to backpedal,” she says. “That said, if Shapiro did mean to say that he thought Biden was wrong in revealing his nomination strategy, he could have included that in his follow up, but he didn’t.”
Shapiro is not the first accomplished, educated person in a position of power to err so mightily. It’s not uncommon for such people to not recognize what they are communicating, the message being sent and how it is being poorly received.
“I have found that high-profile people sometimes operate in a bubble,” Livingston says. “They may not be in regular touch with their constituents – which isn’t a good thing – or (they) have a sense of self importance which prevents them from being more strategic and thoughtful about their public communication. Even with professional PR counsel, they may not listen to advice.”
Career risk is usually not in the forefront of their minds when problematic communication is voiced or written.
“With the prevalence of social media, it’s even more critical for corporate leaders to pause, analyze a situation and prepare a response before issuing a public statement. People get emotional about issues and often feel compelled to answer in the moment, but that’s not a long term communication strategy,” Livingston says. “In Shapiro’s case, he should have considered his current employer’s stance on the issue at hand and also his future employer’s. He did neither.”
Managing emotions and impulses is always a challenge. Some leaders are more skilled than others. Exhibiting self control and considering how communication might be received and hurt others, causing risk to reputation, job and career security, is not as easy as it should be.
“People can learn to manage the impulse to react by taking a pause – even a few minutes can tone down the emotions of the moment. Working with a seasoned communications professional can provide tremendous support in heated situations, to evaluate whether a response is necessary and what it should be,” Livingston says.
“Further, companies are well advised to have a crisis communications plan in place with drafts of general statements that can be customized based on a variety of situations,” she advises. “This can save time, especially in a time-sensitive, crisis situation.”