By Tim Hayes []

By now, you’ve probably heard about the embarrassing faux pas committed by NBC’s Ann Curry, whose commencement address last week to Wheaton College in Massachusetts included kudos to famous alumni such as the Rev. Billy Graham, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and horror movie director Wes Craven – the only problem being that those folks attended Wheaton College in Illinois.

To her credit, Curry posted an apology on the college’s website, saying, ““I am mortified by my mistake, and can only hope the purity of my motive, to find a way to connect with the graduates and to encourage them to a life of service, will allow you to forgive me.”

But the most disturbing aspect of this episode – to me, anyway – came when the school posted a video of Curry’s address but edited out the parts where she cited the erroneous alumni names.

Wheaton College – please – drag yourself into the ‘90s!  What in the world were those administrators thinking?  Imagine the president, the trustee chairman, and head of public relations hunkered down in the Situation Room, deep within the bowels of the main administration building.  Did the dialogue sound like this?

President: “We have a problem here, boys.  A terrible, terrible problem.”

Trustee: “Oh, it’s a stinker, all right.”

PR Guy: “What problem?  That thing with Curry getting her names mixed up?”

President: “Well, what else?!”

Trustee: “Oh, this is quite a pickle.”

President: “We have to erase any evidence that it ever happened!”

Trustee: “Erasing’s good.”

PR Guy: “You’re kidding, of course.”

President: “I most certainly am not kidding!  This never happened!  We must expunge all record of it and you are to deny it to the media.”

Trustee: “No one can ever know.”

President: “No one will ever know.”

PR Guy: “There were hundreds of graduates and their parents there – each with cell phones and video recorders!  It was probably on YouTube before Curry sat down!”

President (hands over his ears): “Lalalalalalala!  I can’t hear you!”

There are no secrets any longer.  Everyone is a potential journalist – muckraking, perhaps, but still a journalist.  Embarrassing, unethical, even illegal behavior captured via camera phone or pocket video camera blankets the planet in seconds.  YouTube is a wondrous thing, but its power must be respected.

Those in leadership positions must never assume that they can control any part of what they say or do in public – or even in private.  Anything and everything is a heartbeat away from becoming public knowledge.  And once it’s online, it’s eternal.

I’m sure Curry was sincere in her apology, and she deserves credit for admitting the sloppy research and taking responsibility.  If only more high-profile people had the same instincts.  The difference was that she knew that coming clean quickly was the only option – because her job is reporting on the follies of people who foolishly think they can still control events in this rapid-fire media world.  The leaders at Wheaton College have much to learn from their commencement speaker, mistakes and all.

Copyright 2010 Tim Hayes Consulting