There’s no doubt that Chelsea Manning is a figure of contention in any context. No matter what the former U.S. Army soldier does now, people will have strong opinions.
There are a lot of reasons for this. On the one hand, Manning is one of the most prominent transgender people in the country. Manning is also known for being convicted of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 by releasing confidential CIA information to WikiLeaks.
Former President Barack Obama commuted Manning’s 35-year sentence, enraging many military supporters and political conservatives.
Harvard University had to know all of this would come back to bite them when the school’s Institute of Politics invited Manning to be one of four visiting fellows for the 2017-18 school year. The move invited derision from rightwing pundits and stoked the ire of many Americans who view Manning as a traitor — not someone to be admired.
The invitation also drew criticism from some at Harvard.
At least one senior fellow resigned over the Manning invitation.
Subsequently, Dean Douglas Elmendorf uninvited Manning. Elmendorf’s statement after the change appears to take into consideration dynamics that should have been considered prior to the invitation, "I see more clearly now that many people view a Visiting Fellow title as an honorific, so we should weigh that consideration when offering invitations . . . In particular, I think we should weigh, for each potential visitor, what members of the Kennedy School community could learn from that person’s visit against the extent to which that person’s conduct fulfills the values of public service to which we aspire . . ."
It seems strange that people in Elmendorf’s position would need to learn this lesson the hard way. Was the school unaware of the potential backlash, or was it just not "real" enough until the news hit the press and the American public reacted?
Apparently, prior to the reaction, public outcry was far from the school’s mind. Elmendorf said the invitation of Manning, initially was to "add diversity" to the conversation . . . "This balance is not always easy to determine, and reasonable people can disagree about where to strike the balance for specific people . . . In retrospect, my assessment of that balance for Chelsea Manning was wrong . . . "
The key point here, for Harvard and any other brand considering any public alignment with a known brand, is that people are going to react based on their prevailing impression before they consider your reasons for the connection.
In that regard, if the person carries a very specific prevailing reputation, that public opinion will filter everything you are trying to accomplish through aligning with that individual. In the case of high-profile political figures such as Manning, there is no single-issue blank slate connection. You get the whole package. That’s something Harvard should have considered long before this embarrassing situation.
Ronn Torossian is one of America’s foremost Public Relations executives as founder/CEO of 5WPR, a leading independent PR Agency. The firm was honored as PR Firm of the Year by The American Business Awards, and has been named to the Inc. 500 List. Torossian is author of the best-selling "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations." For more of Ronn Torossian's reports, Go Here Now.
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