You're Accused Of Writing A "Rape Manual." Now What?
I wrote about the website Kickstarter yesterday, which offers authors, musicians, and others the ability to raise funds to develop and release projects they’re working on.
You may remember that the website apologized recently after users complained that an author writing a seduction guide—which some people referred to as a “rape manual” due to some of the author’s advice that appeared to encourage non-consensual sexual behavior—was using their website to raise money. (You can read the original article here.)
Well, something interesting happened this morning. The author of that book, Ken Hoinsky, saw my post and tweeted this to me:
I responded to Ken a few times on Twitter, which led to a 30-minute phone call this afternoon. (He is not a client, I do not represent him, and we have no confidentiality contract between us. He allowed me to ask him several question on the record.)
The biggest piece of advice I offered Ken—or would offer anyone else in a similar situation—is this: You must focus your response, laser-like, on the people who were most hurt by your comments. If you don’t make it right with the people who were most offended by your words, you’re sunk. And it’s not enough to simply say the right things; the right words must be paired with sincere action.
In this case, the people who were most deeply offended by his comments were likely women who have been raped or sexually abused, those who fear being a victim of violence, and the organizations that advocate for their welfare. The success or failure of his response will be determined largely by how well (or poorly) those women and organizations perceive his actions from this point forward.
If he comes across as a man who reflected on his harmful words, understands that they could lead to violence against women, and pledges to learn from the experience and change his approach, he might be able to salvage his reputation long-term. If he looks like he’s acting to preserve his own interests instead of those of the people most offended by his words, he won’t.
The story is now largely out of the headlines. If Ken makes a donation to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), for example, there’s a chance it may not generate any headlines for him and help him restore his reputation. I hope he’ll do it anyway. Doing the right thing is always good PR.
I also hope he’ll follow through on a pledge he communicated to me to work with these organizations to help ensure that his final book draft doesn’t contain any seduction techniques that could put women at risk. If he develops a long-term and sincere relationship with those organizations, they may eventually say positive things about his commitment. Of course, they may not. He should do it anyway.
The bottom line is that every action he takes from now on will be scrutinized using these questions: Is he sincere? Is he offering help for the right reasons or to help restore his reputation? Is he going to be an advocate for women long-term, or is he just going to be around until this controversy dies?
If he’s on the right side of each of those questions, he has a chance to make some good come out of this incident. I hope he is.
An Excerpt From Our Interview
What have you learned?
“Being a writer, your intentions don’t matter. I didn’t set out to write a book that people would think had rape advice – that people interpreted it that way means it wasn’t coming across right. Coming to terms with the fact that I wrote something harmful has been humbling.”
Do you see the point your critics are making?
“I absolutely get it. It’s one of these things that as a man in society, we really don’t think about the fear of rape or sexual assault; it’s a privilege we have as men. The fear of being raped is in the forefront of most if not all women’s minds. The fact that the words I put on a piece of paper could lead to someone being raped or sexually assaulted is horrifying. I 100 percent understand the reason why those words were so offensive. Having had a chance to reflect on it…since this scandal broke…the things that I said and the feedback that I’m getting has given me the opportunity to understand that what I’ve said is hurtful to women who have been raped, fear being raped, and I want to apologize.”
What are you going to do about it?
I want the outcome of this to be a positive one….If I can in some way open up the dialogue about these issues about men who are seeking out advice to get better in relationships and women concerned about some of that advice being harmful, I’d like to bring those sides together — that would be a lasting legacy I would be very proud of. I am reaching out to anti-rape and abuse organizations, seeking their advice and assistance to go through the advice in this book to make sure it’s beneficial for everyone…I’m going to be donating a portion of these proceeds back to anti-rape charities.”
How has this affected you personally?
“The thing that keeps me going is that the people who know me outside a few words have across the board sent messages of support and understand the bigger picture. That has allowed me to keep my sanity and feel like the whole world isn’t against me. I’m not the type of person to dwell on things I can’t control. I’m looking for an opportunity to make something good happen in the end.”
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
One of the things I wrestle with vis-a-vis crisis communication is understanding when something is really a crisis. For instance, many of the examples of bad behavior that you share on your blog are instances that I only learn about by reading your blog. I’m not a news junkie, but I don’t live under a rock, either. I have a smartphone and I know how to use it, and I consider myself very plugged into, at a minimum, the highlights. Nevertheless, I only really started reading about the Paula Deen scandal after you discussed it here, and I only learned about Ken Hoinsky’s troubles by reading about it here. That being said, I think it’s important to realize that crises occur along a vast continuum, and the response has to be commensurate with the size of the crisis. The Paula Deen issue has certainly snowballed into something that arguably a broad swath of consumers are now aware of. As a result, her ability to recover fully is probably slim. But in the case of Ken Hoinsky, I question 1) what reputation he has currently worth protecting, and 2) how much contrition he is really obligated to show to recover it. I agree that some advice he offered in his book was alarmingly close to a “rape” call to action, and I applaud him for reaching out to you (it shows he’s smarter than we might think). However, as you pointed out, this story is now out of the headlines (although I can’t recall ever having seen it in the headlines), and it (and he) will likely be forgotten by about 3pm today by most people who read about it. I guess what I’m saying is that the fact that he said he gets it–and appears sincere about that–is good enough for me. I think it should be good enough for most people. Donating monies and supporting organizations that he might not have supported before this situation is where I feel things get insincere, because they are only intended to make us feel better; they are not necessarily an expression of Hoinsky’s sincerity, but an act intended to placate us. Yes, there are definitely situations where brands should take those extra steps to put out the fire, regardless of whether or not they are sincere. However, in this case, it feels like we’re painting a small-time ersatz author with the same brush we might paint a Paula Deen or other national brand. In a crisis, I think it’s just as important not to overreact as it is to promptly and appropriately react.
As usual, thank you for a thoughtful comment. You’re right that the scope of both “crises” is much different.
In this case, I might tease apart the “macro-crisis” from the “micro-crisis.” Ken’s crisis isn’t a “macro-crisis” from the standpoint of national attention. As you suggested, his controversy mostly made a dent on a few websites, but didn’t make it onto the national news or become a kitchen table conversation. That said, I believe that it fully qualifies as a “micro-crisis,” which is to say that it could have a long-term effect on him. For example, let’s say he applies for a different job; his employer will likely do a Google search and come up with these stories. So, too, would prospective publishers, agents, dates, in-laws, suppliers, vendors, neighbors, etc.
A good response to this crisis might help mitigate some of the negative press he’s earned, change the long-term narrative, and even creep up in search engine results, moving some of the more damaging stories down.
I guess it’s fair to say that crises come in different shapes, sizes, and scales. This one is definitely on the “left” side of the scale. Paula Deen is in the center. (Alec Baldwin took the scale, broke it over his knee, called it a queen, and then abruptly slammed the door shut.)
Thanks again for reading and commenting. Really glad for your contributions to the blog!