US President Barack Obama, South Korean rapper Psy, and Washington, DC-based Children’s National Medical Center have all found themselves involved in the same controversy this month. While much media attention has been focused on the situation, little attention has been directed at Children’s National.
So, let’s look more closely.
On December 9, 2012, the TNT television network taped Christmas in Washington for broadcast on December 21. This is the 31st year for the program. The event, held at the National Building Museum, was hosted by Conan O’Brien and featured an array of stars including Psy.
The South Korean rapper is known for his mega-hit “Gangnam Style,” which, in just four months, broke the record for most watched YouTube video in history. Traditionally, sitting US Presidents attend the event. This year, as in the past, First Lady Michelle Obama selected Children’s National as the beneficiary of the event, and the organization’s website has leveraged this with requests for donations.
So, what could go wrong?
Well, shortly before the event, a tape surfaced of Psy performing a rap number in 2004. The lyrics are not for the faint-hearted:
Kill those f**king Yankees who have been torturing Iraqi captives
Kill those f**king Yankees who ordered them to torture
Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law, and fathers
Kill them all slowly and painfully”
Some in the media questioned whether it would be appropriate for the nation’s Commander-in-Chief to attend the performance of someone holding such anti-US-military and anti-American views. The White House responded by pointing out that it had nothing to do with the planning of the event or the booking of the acts. Obama and his family planned on attending despite the controversy.
Then, days before the event, Psy issued a public apology (click here for the full text):
While I’m grateful for the freedom to express one’s self I’ve learned there are limits to what language is appropriate and I’m deeply sorry for how these lyrics could be interpreted. I will forever be sorry for any pain I have caused anyone by those words.”
Sometimes, publicity can be good even when the news is bad. So, I was curious if the publicity had a negative impact on event-related donations to Children’s National, a positive impact, or no impact at all. I contacted Children’s National.
After initially agreeing to answer my questions about Christmas in Washington, the organization abruptly declined to respond stating:
Christmas in Washington event is not organized or controlled by Children’s National or its Foundation, which means we have no say over the performers and who is invited. We do not have an operating agreement with TNT.”
In other words, Children’s National was saying the same thing as The White House. It had no control over the event. It did not book the acts. It would have no further comment.
Fair enough, but Children’s National did say something that surprised me: “We do not have an operating agreement with TNT.” This means that Children’s National is allowing TNT to use the medical center’s name without any safeguards in place.
Children’s National abdicated the responsibility for protecting its brand to a for-profit company!
I find it shameful that a healthcare institution would allow itself to be aligned with someone who has called for the torture and murder of US soldiers AND their families. Not only is Psy’s rap number offensive to those who support our military men and women, it is completely counter to the mission of Children’s National.
Yet, despite Psy’s 2004 performance and the fact that he only apologized when it became inconvenient not to do so, Children’s National continues to remain silent. All the organization will say is that it’s not its fault Psy was asked to perform. Unfortunately, the organization has not disavowed the sentiment expressed in Psy’s rap. It has not even expressed regret. It has not expressed support for military personnel and their families.
Last month, I wrote about two employees of a nonprofit organization that were let go because of a photo they took at Arlington National Cemetery that some found disrespectful to the military and offensive. You can read the post and see the photo at: “Want to Retain Good Employees? Then, Don’t Do This.” In addition to letting the employees go, the organization (whose mission was not compromised) issued a statement expressing regret for the actions of the employees. The statement went on to express respect for our military.
In my opinion, the situation involving Psy is far worse, given his call for torture and murder, and given the mission of the medical center. Yet, Children’s National remains silent.
Unfortunately, shrugging the responsibility off on TNT does not protect Children’s National from negative fallout. After all, Christmas in Washington is very much identified with Children’s National.
So, what should Children’s National have done? What should any nonprofit organization do?:
1. Vigilantly protect your organization’s brand.
2. Only work with those whose values are in alignment with your institutional mission.
3. If you’re going to allow another person or organization to use your nonprofit’s name, particularly in a high-profile way, have an operating agreement in place that allows you to retain sufficient control to protect your organization.
4. Remember that ignoring a problem or passing the buck is not the same thing as addressing or solving a problem. Passing the buck seldom wins new friends or keeps old ones.
5. If something goes wrong, apologize or express regret.
Hey, Children’s National, we’re still waiting.
That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?