Yet Another Lesson Learned About Social Context and Having an Audience

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As many of you know, I’ve been teaching PR Writing at NYU’s School of Professional Studies as an adjunct professor.

Last semester, I had a truly spectacular group of students. Just 100% hard working, creative, and over-the-top awesome from beginning to end. I really liked them, and was consistently amazed at how hard they worked, and the quality of work they produced.

Come the end of the semester, and many of them asked me if, through my connections in the PR/Marketing industry, I’d know of any internships available. I was more than happy to put the word out online, which I did.

Unfortunately, what I said when I posted it, as helpful as anyone who “knows me” would know it to be, wasn’t seen that way by a few people. And it was a lesson learned for me.

When I was a student at Boston University in the 90s, going through the journalism program there, I had about five different internships. More than once, we, as interns, were jokingly referred to as “slave labor,” because we worked for free, and needed the experience. This was totally expected, and I was totally fine with it, as were my fellow interns. We were slave labor, as it were. We knew that getting coffee, or making copies, or in some cases, picking up dry cleaning were not only gaining us invaluable experience, but contacts, as well. To this day, I’ve used these contacts, and am better for it.

So when I saw a chance to give back, I didn’t hesitate. Unfortunately, my choice of words, which I knew in my heart to be intended as completely benign, weren’t taken as such by some people who didn’t know me.

Three hours later, I received a call from the dean of the school, (I should mention, the first time anyone at NYU has ever bothered to call me, let alone introduce themselves to me,) and I was asked to pull the post, which I immediately did. I informed the dean that I was simply trying to help. He promised to “get back to me to discuss it further,” and that was the last I heard from him. This was in May.

Long story short, a few days ago, I was informed that I wouldn’t be teaching at NYU anymore, and my fall class was being reassigned. (In a classic case of one hand not knowing what the other is doing, I found this out by submitting my syllabus, and when I didn’t hear back, having to call the office myself, at which point they told me that they didn’t even know I was supposed to teach a second class, but now that they knew, they didn’t want me to. Well… that was handled professionally… But that’s not the point.)

The point is, if this could happen to me, someone who preaches regularly about what NOT to do on social, then it can happen to anyone. Fortunately, my NYU teaching job was done out of love, not out of financial requirement, so my livelihood isn’t affected by losing the gig. But it’s still a hard pill to swallow, especially since the post I made was actually designed to help my students. No good deed goes unpunished, I suppose.

But perhaps some good can come out of this – Remember – Just because your audience “knows” you, and “gets” your sense of humor, doesn’t mean everyone does, and as we know, what we post to a few people never stays there, it goes around the world in a matter of seconds. Remember: Justine Sacco only had a few hundred followers when her life blew up last Christmas.

Worst part for me? My students begged me to come back and teach next semester. I finally promised them I would. But by trying to do something to help them, I can no longer keep that promise. And that’s unfair to them.

So I encourage you to learn from my mistake and transparency surrounding it. As always, be aware of what you’re posting online, in any form. Don’t completely alter your life, but ask yourself – Could what I’m posting be construed the wrong way?

Comment below, I’d love to hear them. And as always, thanks for listening.

Join the discussion 13 Comments

  • dotcalm says:

    Sad that it was important enough to call you immediately on, but not worthy of getting back to you about. Obviously there was at least one discussion about you – as someone decided not to rehire you.
    So many times these types of issues could be ironed out if someone reached out and started a conversation.
    I was the victim of an honest mistake like this – and too lost something precious to me… it sucks when it’s easier to toss you aside than to take a moment to really get to know you.
    Their loss.

  • Robert Skiff says:

    Termination based on this one event is crazy especially if you pulled the post after being asked. People make mistakes in tone all the time–they are just that mistakes. I would be very interested in talking with you about offering your class through our educational startup Oplerno. Don’t let one small issue prevent you from changing the lives of people through education.

  • Darrah says:

    Indeed it is their loss. Sorry to hear. Although I am confident you will have many people knocking on your door to come teach,it still sucks! I have learned a lot from your books and id give a lot to take a class from you! I do not agree with how the situation was handled on their end. But surprised, no. I cant wait to see other comments.

  • csees says:

    Wouldn’t this experience give you more material based on real-life examples to teach future students? I’d hire you in a second for that additional insight.

  • Dan Nainan says:

    Yet further proof that things have gotten way, way too politically correct in this day and age.

    Since you have your students’ contact info, why not set up your own class for them, and even charge them? I bet they would pay. I sure would.

  • Robert Rosen says:

    Did I miss it or did you not show what you said that offended the school. Hard to judge the real issue they had without that.

    I do agree they handled it poorly.

  • alicudby says:

    Wow – fascinating. Of course, with hindsight it’s a clear violation of today’s communication TOS. On the one hand, I completely understand, and they’re not wrong. On the other, it’s a shame that the situation is black and white. (Wait, am I still allowed to say that?? See, it gets confusing.) Where’s the line?

  • Jayne Morehouse says:

    The academics are probably jealous of you—one of the most respected professionals in your field internationally and by all the top companies globally, a best-selling author multiple times over and someone who changes students’ lives instead of preaching the status quo. Luckily, we’re all here eager to learn from your successes and your greater successes because we get you and the importance of what you do. We welcome your students to come and join us.

  • Dianne Davis says:

    Nothing but love and support from my camp! It’s a shame to see the cost be so high over a simple poor choice of words. And NYU’s handling of this is an embarrassment to them. Thank you for all your contributions. I know you will find another way to make a difference in the lives of your students.

  • Kevin A. Gray says:

    Allow me to propose an alternative cause for your dismissal.

    You, Peter, committed the cardinal sin of academe. You sir are a threat to all that the pipe smoking ninnies of higher learning hold dear. In your quest to educate your students, through the use of creativity and practical application, rather than theory based blather, you render irrelevant the lessons spouted forth by so many tweed-wearing, over-educated boobs, who’ve never awoken before the sun to pound the pavement in search of their next meal.

    You further had the audacity to not only show an interest in your talented students; but to use the connections you’ve acquired (no doubt through ill-gotten, capitalistic means) to aid your students in launching successful careers at the completion of their politically-correct, overpriced and increasingly vanilla matriculation.

    You Peter Shankman are a very bad man.

    I’ve seen this. We had a gent, a former PR exec at one of the big three automakers who took a buyout; retired and accepted an invite to return to his alma mater to teach public relations. He certainly didn’t need the money, but he wanted to share his wealth of experience and shape young adults. Rather than teaching from a textbook, he:

    – took his students overseas to learn about the inner workings of PR at a major Japanese automaker.
    – set up his classes as agencies and matched them with local non-profits, allowing the students to learn in the field, while bringing benefit to the community.
    – spent endless hours counseling students while proactively throwing open his Roladex (he was older) to help the most talented and ambitious make contacts and “get a leg up.”
    – he engaged alumni, like myself, and invited us to return to the school to work with students, and became to us an invaluable resource as we worked to advance our careers.

    At the end of his two-year appointment, the faculty voted not to renew his endowed professorship. His sin in the eyes of the tenured faculty — he didn’t have the educational chops (no Ph.D.).

    Most recently, several friends, who put in a decade or more of real-world experience, have returned to school, attained Ph.D.s and are beginning their ascent through the teaching ranks. They too, despite having the requisite sheepskins, face resistance for committing similar sins.

    Higher education is at a crossroads. It’s too expensive. It’s not properly preparing students for real careers. And it’s shepherded by a clan of nitwits who possess little more than fancy self aggrandizing titles and colorful robes with mismatched funny hats.

    Your social media post was an excuse. A means to an end. And Peter, if you compromise who you are to conform to this group of dolts, you risk degrading your brand. Your personality, which may be offensive to some, has been a key plank in building a platform that has served you well (if you’re into things like making money and other such exploitative ventures).

    So, the ball rests in your students’ court. They should en masse demand a refund. It’s clear that this, very likely soon to be irrelevant NYU, has placed importance upon either A) protecting the status quo or B) stifling free expression (two principles allegedly treasured by universities) over providing the best educational opportunities to its students.

    It’s time for the leaders in corporate America to sidestep the system. Go to America’s high schools, cherry pick the brightest and most ambitious, bring them to their companies and train them in real-world skills. In the long run, the real costs of doing so will be less than the costs of hiring brainwashed graduates who have to be retrained on the ways of the world.

    But I really have no opinion on this subject…

  • Wendy Bulawa Agudelo says:

    How anyone could let you go is beyond me, especially given the pearls of wisdom you just unloaded in this single post. Sadly, many people fall prey to the “no good deed goes unpunished” condition as you are in fact, doing something to help someone else without absolute strategic thought about what it may do to you. Thank goodness you are such a warm, caring and progressive soul. NYU just lost a huge asset. Onward and upward Peter. Come back to Boston! I’ll be Harvard would snatch you up in a second!

  • tdhurst says:

    While working for a modern living magazine in Phoenix in the mid ’00s, I made the mistake of being honest with potential interns about hours, perks, and the events they’d get access to (the only thing I made sure to tell them is that we don’t allow underage consumption at company events).

    One week later, the intern manager dude from ASU called to tell us my magazine would no longer be able to have interns from ASU, as I’d made a mockery of the internship process.

    These same interns went on to intern at the local alt weekly, where at least two of them were cited for underage consumption at an event.

    But the alt weekly didn’t lose ASU’s backing.

    Academia is stupid.

  • Tara Yingzi Yu says:

    True kindness is never perfect enough for the one who cares about words instead of actions .Thank you Professor, some of us still appreciate what you have done.

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