The Answer to Our Fraternity Image Problem

A very interesting juxtaposition occurred this past week related to our image as a fraternity movement.

In one high-profile case, fraternity leaders gathered at the Association of Fraternity Advisors meeting and charted a new way forward for the North American Interfraternity Conference, which is the longstanding trade association for fraternities.  Part of this innovative and widely-praised plan includes an increase in proactive public relations and a sophisticated approach to dealing with the media.  The ultimate goal is to “advance the fraternity brand.”

In another high-profile case, one chapter of one fraternity at one campus decided to do something so heartwarming, that it was picked up by many media outlets and went instantly viral.  The brothers of Sigma Alpha Epsilon at UCLA have taken to supporting a young cancer patient whose hospital room looks out upon their house.  They surprised her by spelling her name in their Christmas lights as well.  Read more of the story and try not to be in a good mood the rest of the day.

Both of these situations can live and operate in the same space, and actually, they complement each other quite well.

However, as the NIC story emerged, I appreciate that the SAE story also came about and re-centered us on what will be truly effective in our efforts to enhance the image of fraternity and sorority life: our actions.

Negative press has always been a problem in Greek life, and it unfortunately tends to always be a scapegoat.  If only the media didn’t portray all of those negative stereotypes!  It’s increased tenfold in recent years because of how one negative story can now spread like wildfire throughout social media.

One of the earliest lessons of fraternity life I learned and still carry with me is that when you focus too much blame on media representations of fraternity, you are giving the media the power to define you.  I was told as a young fraternity member to take the power back and focus on changing behaviors and living the values of my fraternity.  And I’ve been trying to do that ever since.

And so, here are some young men at UCLA who had no reason to befriend this cancer-stricken girl other than (1) their values told them to, and (2) they have compassion in their hearts. 

The girl’s parents, nurses, doctors, and everyone who was touched by this story now have a viewpoint on fraternity that they likely never had before.  And it’s a viewpoint that could not have been reached through some sophisticated PR campaign.  For these individuals, the next negative press account of a fraternity behaving badly will be seen as an outlier, and not the norm.  It’s the opposite for the general public. Why the difference?  Because these individuals engaged with fraternity men living their values.

We don’t live out our values for the sake of good public relations.  However, it’s a fact that fraternity men living their values is still the best public relations strategy we can ever employ.

I don’t think we will ever convince the public at-large of the value of fraternity and sorority life.  The odds have become stacked too highly against us, and any proactive communications strategy we do (no matter how sophisticated or how well-funded) will always be undone by one story of one idiot fraternity member doing something that matches the stereotype of frat. 

Our movement, however, will not be undone by that one idiot.  It won’t be undone by the public at-large’s perception of us. 

If our movement is to be undone, it’s because we lost the grassroots support of influencers
touched by our members doing acts – large and small – that reflect their personal and organizational values.

In other words, if I had a choice of swaying 1,000 members of the general public to appreciate fraternity life, or one parent of a high school student instead, I’d take the parent.  We can’t get everyone on our side, but we can get the right people to be there.

We know we are noble organizations that get hijacked by fools who want to use us as vehicles for personal gain and self-indulgence.  We know the power of the values we instill in
our members.  We know the difference we want to make in our members’ lives and the communities around us.  So how do we convey that? 
One person at a time.  One interaction at a time.  One values-based act at a time.  While this is simpler than some broad PR campaign, it’s not easier.  But it will be way more effective.  A broad PR campaign can be there to lightly assist this personal outreach.  Most of the time, these types of campaigns only serve to build greater pride in membership of those already affiliated – which isn’t a bad outcome.

Do you want to make a difference for the future success of fraternity and sorority life?  Stop 
worrying about getting good press or building your brand.  Do this:

In honor of the efforts of these young men at UCLA and the young lady they support, let’s start something called Project Lexi.  Every fraternity that reads this blog should find a child battling an illness and adopt him/her and their family.  Simply make their lives better and easier, perhaps right now during the holidays.  Show them what it means to be a member of your fraternity or sorority.  Wear your values loudly and proudly. 

Do this because your fraternity calls upon you to live this way; to step forward instead of standing still.  Don’t worry about the P.R.  If we act in accordance with our values, that will take care of itself.

And along the way, we will do what we were always born to do: make the world a better place.

1 comment:

  1. I think while I agree with your point (actions are our best PR), saying that the odds are stacked against and we can never overcome the bad image the media portrays of us is still blaming them instead of taking ownership. We would never have a bad image if we didn't do all the things for the media to cover. A lot of people in our field don't understand how the media works (they are not there to tell every story but to tell stories that will engage people to read/watch their media so they select the stories that people are interested in reading - it usually has to have some note of being different than the everyday norm). Even those of us in the field will choose to read/watch the extreme stories over another story of a group raising a minuscule amount of money or doing a one-time service event. I'm sorry, that's not news; it's not interesting. I saw a great example of this at UIFI or IMPACT years ago with "good" stories on one side of the room and "bad" stories on the other. All were about F/S and those of us in the F/S skimmed over the good and spent much more time and attention on the bad.

    I think expecting the media to cover F/S doing good things is unrealistic. We say we are about values and doing good things so expecting coverage for what we should be doing is kind of dumb. That should be everyday and not need congratulations. Going above and beyond or way below that standard is what makes something newsworthy.

    The UCLA students got coverage because they went beyond the average and did something extraordinary. Hazing gets covered because it is shocking. Alcohol deaths get covered because a life was taken. If we don't do it, it doesn't make the news. It's that simple. For every 10 groups doing things like these SAEs, we have 1 idiot chapter killing kids, sexually assaulting people, vandalizing property or doing racist crap. And I'm okay with that 1 idiot group getting bad press. Unfortunately that is the one thing that will move organizations to action and make change. We need to focus on fixing the behavior, not the PR. Fixing the recruitment process, not the PR. That is the answer. A well-crafted response statement after a student is killed by hazing or alcohol means nothing. It can't bring that person back.