No good deed goes unpunished, but…

As a professional communicator, I’m always intrigued by how many people in the business of communicating can still get tripped up by crossed wires. Sometimes that can lead to the age-old cynical curse that goes, “No good deed goes unpunished.” But sometimes, like yesterday, there’s a learning experience to be had.

The case in point is the Detroit chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and its hosting of the 2010 Michigan PRSA conference, PRevolution, in Novi. Along with the usual sponsorship requests to cover the costs of putting on such a conference, the chapter wanted to do something to help PR students, too. So, they created sponsorships for companies and individuals to help pay the $150 cost for students.

“We want students to attend — it’s a great opportunity, ” PRSA Detroit President Rich Donley told me today after there was a dust-up on Twitter over the way the chapter was handling the student sponsorships.

The chapter asked for a paragraph from students interested in applying for a sponsorship. Other chapters across the state were asked to encourage students to apply.

The official flier stated:

The conference is currently seeking student applicants who would like to attend the conference gratis. To become eligible, student PRSSA members are asked to submit a paragraph explaining why they are interested in attending. A committee of PRSA Detroit members will then choose two students from each participating school.

At Michigan State University, where I’m a professional adviser for the student chapter of PRSA, I know an email was sent out that explained the program this way:

To become eligible, the student has to submit a paragraph explaining why they want to attend the conference. Submitting a name and paragraph does not guarantee sponsorship/attendance, but will greatly help sponsorship efforts by personalizing the appeal.

Unfortunately, not every student across the state received that email. So,several students who applied and sent in their paragraph suddenly found that PRSA Detroit had created a page where visitors could read the paragraphs and choose to sponsor a specific student.

That rubbed some of the students the wrong way, and rightly so. In various messages on the character-limited Twitter, they wrote to me:

When we applied they said two students from each school will be able to go free to represent their university. No one said anything about raising donations. I’m not going to go around begging for people to sponsor me. It just doesn’t seem right to me.

Just wish I knew that my paragraph was going to be online and for donations. That’s all.

Good intentions, but I don’t beg for money. If I just had to go, I would pay my own way. And posting the essays without permission is bad.

When I contacted PRSA Detroit about this situation, they were quick to act. They looked into what was causing the confusion and quickly edited the web page to remove the students’ names and paragraphs. Now, the page is set up to accept donations via PayPal, but you’re contributing to a pool and not to any specific student. (By the way, I urge everyone to visit the page and chip in. Donley said they need $1,350 to cover the cost of all the students who want to attend.)

“This wasn’t set up to be a fundraiser, it’s always been a sponsorship,” Donley said. “We will work hard to make sure two students from each school get to go.”

Donley said he felt terrible about the mix-up and that some of the students felt wronged by what had happened. He said it was definitely a breakdown in communication, which he admitted was interesting considering everyone involved is a communicator. Last night, an email was sent out from Rich to everyone involved explaining what had happened and how PRSA Detroit was trying to make things right.

I decided to write this post to help everyone learn a lesson. PRSA Detroit certainly learned to more carefully describe their program to applicants. Hopefully the students learned a lesson, too. I happened to catch the chatter on Twitter and tried to help. I did so not by continuing the berating of PRSA Detroit in a public forum but by taking the discussion “offline.” I went to private messages with the students to understand their position and then I reached out to PRSA Detroit to find out what they thought might have happened.

By making contact with everyone involved directly I got the whole story. And, more importantly, I got the problem addressed and amends made. Now, perhaps, things can now move forward with only good intentions and no hard feelings.

Donley noted that PRSA Detroit would be reaching out again to folks to try to secure additional sponsorship money, or, you can also go offer some support here.

Oh, and in case you missed it, you can go here to sponsor students.

Why are you still reading? Shouldn’t you be at this page sponsoring a student?  🙂

(Photo courtesy of Macca via Flickr.)


10 comments on “No good deed goes unpunished, but…

  1. I appreciate the recap, and I’d also like to point out there is more than one angle to the story. If I was one of these students, I would be excited to be a finalist, but if I didn’t know my paragraph would end up online and it was posted on PRSA Detroit’s Web site (by the way, the 4th largest PRSA Chapter in the country), I’d be thrilled. Talk about visibility with some great people.

    I know there are some students who feel wronged, but I would encourage them to look at it from another perspective. They had the opportunity to be sponsored for a conference no student had ever attended before. Even better, they got a free ad on a professional association’s Web site.

    And by the way, while some might have been offended their paragraph was online, that opportunity is gone for the several people who were excited for the opportunity and visibility, and I disagree with that.


    • Hi Nick,

      As you know, I was one of the students who complained. I won’t speak on the behalf of the other students, but my concern was not that my essay would be posted on the site (though I do wish I would have been notified that it would be published).

      My concern was that the way the ‘Help A Student Out’ was originally set up seemed like a contest to me. The site said that donations could be made in full for $150 towards one student or if “contributions less than the full sponsorship will be put in a pool. Each time the pool reaches $150, another student is registered.” There was no indication when we applied for free admission for the conference (in which we were already competing against students from our own schools) that we would have to be competing yet again against students from other schools. Had I known it was an essay contest based upon my merits, I would have taken a different approach when writing the application essay.

      I would have had no qualms had PRSA Detroit published the essays with the intent of showing why donations should be made so that ALL of these ambitious PR students could attend the conference. That actually might have been a better plan of action so that sponsers could see that this was a group of proactive students who each had his or her own reason for wanting to attend the conference.

      So as I’ve explained, my issue wasn’t with the publication of the essays, but rather the “contest” aspect it turned into without initial notification that it was, indeed, a contest.

      I applaud PRSA Detroit for changing the rules based upon the students’ concerns (myself included) and setting up sponsorships towards the whole instead of towards the individual. The point of something like this is so that each and every one of us can attend this conference. We wouldn’t have taken the time to write a short-essay explaining why we want to attend the conference if we didn’t want to go in the first place. I feel that the rules now are fair and make it less of “me-against-you” type of program. It is my hope that we can all work together so that those who were selected to represent each school can attend the conference, regardless if the essays are published or not.



      • Hi Mikinzie-

        Thanks for offering your input, and I can’t say I disagree with you. At the very least, no one knew it was a competition, so all essays seemed to be on par with each other.

        As I said with Rachel, I just wanted to offer a different perspective. There were a lot of harsh tweets being tossed around, and in any case, I’m glad they listened and a good solution will hopefully come from all of this.


        • Thanks Nick.

          As you may have seen my blog post about my experience at Edelman during the agency visits at DePaul’s PRSSA regional activity, even communicators can’t be perfect *all* the time and sometimes fall into the ‘miscommunication trap.’ It is, however, how the situation is handled that matters in the end. As I mentioned above, PRSA Detroit did a great job of addressing our concerns. Thanks for your consistent input throughout the confusion.



  2. Nick,

    I think the difference was that the people from MSU who signed up KNEW what was going to happen. It wasn’t the case with several others.

    I wasn’t the only one who disagreed with this. We were under the impression that the essays were just for the PRSA committee.

    Then, I get a message from someone asking about my entry. There was no communication with PRSA Detroit about them choosing me or putting up my essay and name.

    What would happen if you posted a client’s name and information they had written to you? It’s the same deal here. There needs to be communication and disclosure and that is why I was not amused about.


    • Hi Rachel,

      It’s not only the MSU students who are disappointed in their paragraphs being removed.

      I think relating it to a client situation is a stretch. PRSA Detroit was trying to do students a favor by offering student sponsorship. You guys have the opportunity to attend a conference no student has ever been able to attend. How awesome is that? I understand the process was not fully communicated to you, but is it so bad that your paragraph talking about your passion for the industry ended up on PRSA’s site? I guess I find it hard to bash a group of people who genuinely care about the next generation of professionals by offering this opportunity to them.


      • We definitely have different outlooks on this, but I don’t think it’s a stretch. If something you wrote for a committee is placed online, you should be informed. And I wasn’t. That’s the point I’m making. That’s the point the other two people who I talked to about it also agreed with.


      • Also, I think that posting the student’s names would have been totally fine. Then it’s more of an announcement. But the lack of disclosure that the essays would be published was the problem.

        Again, I wasn’t the only person who thought this was misleading. I won’t name the others because I think they will step forward and comment if they are comfortable doing so.


        • I don’t disagree with you on your frustrations, I’m just wondering if you think it’s a bad thing your paragraph ended up online. Yes, you weren’t informed. Yes, there was obviously a miscommunication. All I’m saying is your paragraph probably helped you more than just having your name be listed, or nothing at all.

          I know these pros had students’ best intentions at heart. Remember that their PRSA duties are on top of their careers, families and other commitments. And from my past experience with this group, they have never treated a student like anything less than a professional.


  3. Mikinzie – That was definitely another area of concern. I also felt that I had targeted my essay to one group and then realized that it was really for another group. That was frustrating as well.

    I definitely agree with you on that aspect.


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