University of Missouri Fails Timing Test with House of Cards Comment

Ronn TorossianRonn Torossian, CEO, 5WPR

Context matters in communication. It’s a Public Relations lesson many learn too little, and, at times, much too late. What we say matters, certainly, how and when we deliver that message matters even more. Sometimes, the content of the message is okay. The timing is not. A recent case illustrates that principle well.

The University of Missouri wanted to advertise an internship opportunity, and the savvy creators of the piece wanted it to really connect with students. Total misfire, unfortunately. The promo team decided to reference the hit Netflix political drama, “House of Cards” in the advertising message: “Experience the real-life ‘House of Cards!’” the advert promised, when posted on the university’s website. Unfortunately, the message was posted right after the recently sexual abuse allegations were leveled against House of Cards star, Kevin Spacey, and it was announced that, if Netflix continued to produce the program, Spacey would not be a part of the cast.

A year ago, the ad may have been seen as light-hearted fun, or exaggeration to gain attention. Now, it is directly connected to an ongoing PR crisis including allegations of sexual abuse of teenagers. But it wasn’t just students who found the ad in poor taste. Missouri State Representative Martha Stevens said the comparison made in the ad was “insulting,” because the Netflix program is known for all sorts of unethical plotting, as well as lying, cheating and even murder to achieve and hold political power.

The university’s office of service learning defended neither the message nor the timing. “We realize the headline was in poor taste. The item has been removed from the website and won’t appear again… We have been in contact with several legislators to express our apology and explain…”

That message had some people wondering if there was more to the quip than just a pop culture reference. In this case, there appears to be. The state government of Missouri has been plagued with recent issues of sexual harassment, including that of Sen. Paul LeVota, who was forced to step down after allegations surfaced he sexually harassed interns. Another, House Speaker John Diehl, resigned after admitting being guilty of sending sexually suggestive text messages to an intern.

These high-profile cases cause the Missouri state government to issue new rules governing harassment, so it’s entirely plausible that the people responsible for the “humorous” advert knew exactly what they meant and how they meant it. Even if that’s the case, they picked a poor time to try that joke. The lesson, once again, is to think about how a message will be perceived, not how you perceive it.