Sexual harassment and a way forward

At a recent luncheon, a highly regarded and influential woman suggested the current cavalcade of sexual harassment claims, counterclaims and general upheaval may put a real “chill” on inter-office interactions and hurt women seeking upward mobility.

Will men’s preoccupation with “Who’s next?” lead them to shy away from hiring qualified women?

I cannot say for sure. Can anybody? At the very least, these charges and the corresponding #MeToo campaign should make workplaces everywhere more prudent. “Think before you say something stupid or act out a really bad idea” is sound advice for any occasion.

As a PR professional, I’m aghast at the PR missteps coming out of the plethora of incidents involving top brass in Hollywood, Wall Street and Washington D.C. Some public relations people are making good money off of numerous scandals by attempting to “frame the incident” or “put the episode in context” for their clients.

Certainly, many claims are being made after years of silence. When that much time passes, a lot is left to recollection and possible misinterpretation by either party. Public relations people are sometimes stuck trying to piece together a fractured narrative, but some messaging seems to be missing a very important ingredient: truth.

That doesn’t surprise much of the American public, who already views PR professionals as having a loose relationship with the truth. One researcher summed it up this way: “Recent public opinion surveys and source credibility experiments have not painted a flattering picture of public relations. Both have labeled practitioners as spokespersons whom the public highly doubts and have ranked them behind almost every other information source imaginable, including pollsters, student activists and funeral directors.”

In reality, PR professionals cannot make up facts, provide false information purposely or attempt to bend and twist the actual storyline. They deal with the facts, no matter how harsh and damaging they may be. True, some facts get more play than others, but we all do that in our lives. When I ask my students, “How many of you tell your significant other, boyfriend or girlfriend everything?” not many raise their hands.

So, where does this all lead? No doubt, we’ll hear of many more revelations involving the bad behavior of people in high places. More people will resign. More people will disappear from public view (at least temporarily). Eventually, few “surprises” will be left to reveal.

Creating healthier work environments is the first place to start, for work is where many offenses occur. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, “In a typical week in the United States, the average worker spends approximately 55 hours, or about 33 percent of their time, participating in work-related activities.”

We must create safer and more positive environments for employees of all genders and backgrounds. We need to better educate our employees, peers, family members and co-workers about appropriate behaviors and how to intervene during an inappropriate encounter. And media, including public relations professionals, should continue to spread truth and awareness about sexual assault and harassment.

Will men become skittish about working with women, especially those who seek advancement? Not if they don’t have anything to worry about. Will women continue to fear the repercussions of speaking out? I hope not.

More than 17.7 million women have reported a sexual assault to the MeToo movement. Those cases have already happened. With some proactive education and a wholesale change in attitudes of many in positions of power, we can prevent that ghastly number from rising. Starting now.

If you have ever been a victim of sexual assault, please call the national sexual assault hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

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