If you’re planning to join a sorority (and there are so many damn good reasons not to, but that’s another post)… if your daughter is thinking of joining a sorority… if any young woman you know is thinking of joining a sorority, and that sorority is Delta Zeta… then please ask them to read this NY Times story first:

Worried that a negative stereotype of the sorority was contributing to a decline in membership that had left its Greek-columned house here half empty, Delta Zeta’s national officers interviewed 35 DePauw members in November, quizzing them about their dedication to recruitment. They judged 23 of the women insufficiently committed and later told them to vacate the sorority house.

The 23 members included every woman who was overweight. They also included the only Korean and Vietnamese members. The dozen students allowed to stay were slender and popular with fraternity men – conventionally pretty women the sorority hoped could attract new recruits. Six of the 12 were so infuriated they quit.

Over at the Delta Zeta news page, the sorority claims it’s all a misunderstanding that’s been blown out of proportion by the media, an “unfortunate distraction to the University’s educational mission.” The eviction (sorry, membership review) was driven solely by an unspecified measure of members’ commitment; the only thing Delta Zeta did wrong, they say, was to fail to anticipate that people would be so upset.

Their page leaves the definite impression that this problem’s all in the media’s collective mind. But the university administration’s web page on the Delta Zeta sorority makes it clear that DePauw’s leadership doesn’t see it that way:

DePauw University is home to the Delta chapter of Delta Zeta but we are not responsible for, nor do we condone, the manner in which the national officers of Delta Zeta carried out their membership review and the subsequent treatment of their members. DePauw University disagrees with Delta Zeta’s actions and their characterization of what has occurred on campus. (emphasis mine)

It is outside our previous experience that a national organization would take actions that so negatively impact our students. Delta Zeta’s timing of its membership review, its mixed messages to their members, and its unwillingness to address our community’s concerns are markedly different from the standard of behavior that we expect from University partners.

Delta Zeta’s news page makes multiple mentions of its invitations to DePauw University’s president to meet to find common ground. Turns out that spirit of goodwill and cooperation is of suspiciously recent vintage:

In early December when the Delta Zeta national office sent letters to our students informing them of their status, University staff immediately responded to support them and to secure their housing for the second semester. At that time we also requested that a national Delta Zeta representative come to campus to address our concerns. Cindy Menges, the Executive Director of Delta Zeta Sorority, declined our invitation to come to campus until February 8.

The sorority has now announced it will no longer talk to the media – rarely a winning communications strategy, and never a sign that you’re confident you’re on the side of goodness and light. And they make the stunningly self-serving suggestion that DePauw follow suit, “to protect the DePauw University student body”.

Then again, when you manage to give eviction a euphemism like “promotion to alumnae status”, acts of profound gall probably come naturally – such as attacking the targets of that eviction:

The girls asked to take alumni status have dragged this event into a year-long “travesty” to be viewed as the victims of a horrendous act.

Compare that to the “apology” posted prominently on their site – “Delta Zeta National apologizes to any of our women at DePauw who felt personally hurt by our actions. It was never our intention to disparage or hurt any of our members during this chapter reorganization process.” – and the organization looks more than a little two-faced.

Women join sororities for many reasons, and one of them they hope to find a sense of community and mutual support during one of the biggest transitions of their lives. If they think they’ll find it in the head office of Delta Zeta, they might want to think again.

And for communicators hoping to learn from this, a few quick lessons:

  • Ending communications on an issue is a poor way to carry the day. Making a big announcement about it is even worse.
  • If you’re going to apologize, be sincere. Make it clear what you’re apologizing for, and to whom. Say what you did wrong, and what you’ll do differently in the future. And then stick to it.
  • If the evidence says on the face of it that you’ve done something terrible, either back down and admit your guilt (see apologizing, above) or confront the evidence and how it’s been interpreted. Don’t think you can get away with stonewalling on the most compelling part of the story.
  • If you must defend the indefensible,
    • don’t get defensive about it – it’s unbecoming; and
    • ask yourself why you’re defending it.

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