Red Banyan Group was contacted this week by Bizwomen, a division of The Business Journals, to provide its expertise and insight into the recent controversial resignation of Spokane’s NAACP chapter former president Rachel Dolezal.
In his conversation with reporter Caroline McMillan Portillo, crisis communications expert and Red Banyan Group’s Founder and Principal Evan Nierman gave his analysis of Dolezal’s resignation letter. Nierman noted that the letter lacked strategy and failed to address any questions in readers’ minds. “This letter was confusing and confused,” said Nierman. “Which also seems to be true for the person who wrote it.”
Read the full piece below:
4 big mistakes ex-NAACP official Rachel Dolezal made in her resignation letter
by Caroline McMillan Portillo
No matter how they feel about ex-NAACP official Rachel Dolezal’s alleged misrepresentation of her racial background, crisis-communications experts agree on this much: Dolezal’s resignation letter didn’t do much for her cause.
The 545-word letter — a tome when it comes to resignations, usually known for being sterile and brief — was posted to the Spokane, Wash., NAACP Facebook page on Monday and had generated nearly 3,000 comments at press time. Many of those comments were critical of the 37-year-old civil rights activist who became the center of a media maelstrom last week when her parents accused her of lying and pretending to be black.
From a business perspective, Dolezal’s racial identity is beside the point. But her resignation letter offers a few key lessons in how not to step down, particularly in a time of controversy.
We pitched the resignation letter to three crisis-communications experts who shared their perspective. Here are four big mistakes Dolezal, one of our women to watch this week, made in her letter — and what she should have done differently.
- The letter lacks sound bites.
On the whole, Dolezal’s letter is fairly well-written, grammatically sound and a reflection of her former employer’s positions, Rosemary Plorin, president and CEO of Lovell Communications, wrote in an email.
But what it lacks are sound bites — “those irresistibly quotable sentiments that are destined to appear in media coverage,” Plorin said. And it takes her five paragraphs to get to the point of the letter: the fact that she is stepping down.
“Ironically, the most quotable remark in the letter may be the most patently false,” Plorin said, referencing the first sentence of the sixth paragraph:
“…Whether it means stepping up or stepping down…this is not about me,” Dolezal writes.
Not true, Plorin retorts: “This is entirely about her and the choices she’s made. It appears Dolezal still fails to recognize — and refuses to concede — that the hardships she is now enduring are singularly of her own creation.”
- She mentions ‘I’ and ‘my’ much more than ‘we’ and ‘our.’
There’s a lot of self-indulgent talk in Dolezal’s letter, said Ernest DelBuono, who chairs the crisis practice at Levick, a national public relations and strategic communications firm, including a dozen mentions of “I” and “my,” and only a handful of “we” and “our.”
Dolezal starts out by mentioning NAACP causes that deserve attention, such as police brutality, biased curriculum in schools and economic disenfranchisement. Then she bemoans the fact that the dialogue has turned to her personal identity.
But just a few lines later, Dolezal turns the attention back on herself, outlining all that she has done in her five-month tenure, including: “securing a beautiful office for the organization,” “bringing the local branch into financial compliance,” and “putting membership on a fast climb.”
The letter is all about her, DelBuono said, which is counterproductive — for the NAACP and Dolezal herself.
“The fact that you’re resigning means you know you can’t be effective anymore,” he said. “So what’s the point in talking about your past accomplishments?”
It won’t help her much in the future either, he added. Years from now, when she applies for a job, the hiring manager will read that letter.
“They are…going to look at the tone of the letter and see that it’s rather self-centered,” DelBuono said. “And is that the person you want to see heading your organization?”
- She hints at — but doesn’t share — her side of the story.
In spite of all of the self-focused talk in the resignation, Dolezal doesn’t ever share her side of the story, said Evan Nierman, founder and principal of the Red Banyan Group, which has offices in Florida and Washington, D.C.
Near the top, she says: “I have waited in deference while others expressed their feelings, beliefs, confusions and even conclusions — absent the full story.”
But that full story never comes. Nierman says shorter is almost always better when it comes to resignation letters, but if you’re going to write it long, at least make it your swan song.
“It’s so silly in that she’s saying, ‘Everybody else got their turn to speak and I haven’t revealed the truth yet,’ and she doesn’t reveal anything,” Nierman said.
And by avoiding the narrative, she doesn’t resolve the issue in readers’ minds or effectively ditch the spotlight.
- The letter lacks a sense of closure.
Dolezal’s letter talks about her commitment to civil rights, her frustration at being misunderstood and her allegiance to NAACP causes.
What gets short shrift is her successor, former Spokane NAACP Vice President Naima Quarles-Burnley. Other than a quick reference (“I step aside from the Presidency and pass the baton to…”), Quarles-Burnley gets no mention. There’s not even a throwaway line about her confidence in the new president and the chapter’s future. Instead, we’re encouraged that “this is not (Dolezal) quitting; this is a continuum.”
“This letter was confusing and confused,” Nierman said. “Which also seems to be true for the person who wrote it.”