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.)