In the days leading up to The New York Times exposé, NAR left a virtual bread-crumb trail for digital damage control around the topic of sexual harassment. Christy Murdock shares the messaging and how to avoid a PR nightmare.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, The New York Times published Debra Kamin’s long-anticipated exposé of Kenny Parcell and the leadership team at NAR. In it, she drew from dozens of interviews with both current and former figures at NAR to make a case for a culture of rampant harassment at the trade organization.
Update: Following publication of the NYT story on Saturday morning, NAR President Kenny Parcell resigned before the end of the day on Monday. Find out more: NAR President Kenny Parcell resigns after NYT exposé
Long before the NYT article was published or even rumored to exist, however, NAR’s PR machine was hard at work, publishing content about the strides it’s making on sexual harassment both on NAR’s own site and elsewhere.
There’s an old idiom: “Whistling past the graveyard.” It means that you’re putting on a show of bravery to keep your courage up, even though inside you’re really scared. The phrase came to mind as I looked back at NAR’s recent content creation around sexual harassment.
Here is a review of the timeline of major events and publications from the timeframe involved in Janelle Brevard’s complaint to the time of the publication of Debra Kamin’s article in The New York Times:
- June 2022: NAR Chief Storyteller Janelle Brevard tells then President-elect Kenny Parcell that she no longer wants to be involved in a sexual relationship with him.
- July 2022: NAR hires Polsinelli LLC, a national law firm, to investigate multiple allegations of a sexually hostile work environment fostered by Parcell. This was the second year in a row that NAR had paid to investigate claims made concerning Parcell.
- Sep. 2022: Brevard is terminated from her position at NAR.
- Nov. 2022: Parcell is elevated to the rank of NAR president.
- June 27, 2023: Brevard files suit against NAR for racial and sexual discrimination. She withdraws her lawsuit nine days later.
- Aug. 16, 2023: Inman reaches out to both NAR and The New York Times for comments regarding a rumored story that is said to be forthcoming. NAR responded that they could not comment without first seeing the contents of the article.
- Aug. 26, 2023: Debra Kamin’s article, “President of Powerful Realtors Group Is Accused of Sexual Harassment” is published in The New York Times.
NAR’s reaction along the way
NAR Chairman Bob Goldberg and President Kenny Parcell are quoted extensively in the Times interview, frequently regarding point-by-point specifics of the allegations contained therein, suggesting that they knew what was coming in detail.
As far back as December of last year, NAR was busy publishing sexual harassment content on nar.realtor, like this PowerPoint on the topic prepared by NAR Deputy General Counsel and Vice President of Legal Affairs and Antitrust Compliance Lesley M. Muchow.
More recently, on Aug. 15, 2023, RISMedia published an editorial by NAR CEO Bob Goldberg headlined, “Op-Ed: NAR looks to lead fight against workplace harassment.” The article was subsequently posted on NAR’s own website and run by RISMedia as a sponsored advertisement through Google Ads as the first source for the search term: NAR sexual harassment. It was still there Saturday morning, hours after the Times article’s rollout.
Prior to that, and at around the same time that rumors of an upcoming New York Times exposé were made public at Inman Connect Las Vegas, NAR published another article on its website headlined, “NAR Prioritizes a Respectful Workplace” on Aug. 10, 2023.
Going back a few months, even before rumors of the upcoming Times piece began to swirl in July and August and before the initial lawsuit against NAR President Kenny Parcell, NAR was cranking out content on the subject, including one article published in Feb. 2023 headlined, “Stopping Sexual Harassment.” It began this way:
The National Association of Realtors’ Q2 2022 Quarterly Risk Report details how the number of sexual harassment claims filed under NAR’s Professional Liability Insurance Program through October 2022 have dramatically increased, outnumbering similar claims filed in 2021, 2020 and 2019.
Janelle Brevard was fired from her job in September 2022 and alleged in her subsequently withdrawn lawsuit that she told Kenny Parcell in June 2022 that she wanted to end their relationship.
There are a couple of possibilities here:
- NAR, under the leadership of CEO Bob Goldberg and President Kenny Parcell, felt that sexual harassment was an important and vital issue that needed to be addressed publicly and frequently in the best interest of their membership, two-thirds of whom are women.
- NAR was making a rather ham-fisted CYA attempt in the days leading up to the NYT exposé to skew online searches and get ahead of the story.
Nobody wants to find themselves in a position like the one people currently find themselves in at NAR, but in the months leading up to the current reckoning, they did not appear interested in an honest assessment of their role, choosing instead to obfuscate and double down repeatedly.
Crisis management from a PR perspective is all about messaging. Putting your fingers in your ears and yelling “opposite day!” is not effective messaging.
There were already harassment-related claims filed at NAR HQ, and they weren’t a well-kept secret, even before it became clear that The New York Times was about to lay out leadership’s secrets and scandals. Writing some articles and paying for placement instead of coming up with a compelling explanation or, better yet, telling the truth and dealing with the consequences, is incompetent at best and obtuse at worst.
Here are 3 things to learn from NAR’s amateurish PR attempt
Whether you use a public relations firm on a regular basis to get your marketing message out or are forced to use them in the aftermath of a public awareness crisis, here are some of the things to keep in mind:
Legal help isn’t the same as PR help
Your attorney is telling you to deny, deny, deny. From a legal standpoint, that may be the right thing to do, at least at first and before you develop your long-term legal strategy. But from a PR perspective, it’s a disaster, similar to when a toddler thinks they’re invisible simply because they’re putting their hands over their eyes. (If I can’t see you, you can’t see me, right?)
Nail down your messaging
Please, if you’re in a position where you’re facing a scandal, reach out to a professional expert in crisis PR — and get real help. Figure out what to acknowledge and how to do it. You may fool some of the people all of the time, but, for the most part, you’re not fooling anyone when you simply pretend that your PR crisis isn’t happening.
Get out of your echo chamber
From an outsider’s perspective, it looks like no one at NAR is talking to anyone outside of NAR. Based on the comments from the Inman community, people aren’t buying the narrative they’re trying to sell. When you’ve got a big PR problem, you probably need to talk to someone from outside your organization who can help you see how your brand is reading beyond the home office.
Email Christy Murdock