#SnatchingLetters: A Lesson in Reputation and Image

In the interest of transparency, I am a member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc and a founding member of an alumnae chapter.  I won’t say that I’m an expert in all things Greek, but I can definitely say that I have insight into how Greekdom works – not just from a membership standpoint, but also because I’ve done licensing, crisis management, and intellectual property litigation work on behalf of Greek organizations and licensors in the past.  So, it’s safe to say that I can talk about this stuff with a good point of reference.  In addition, although I hold membership in a Divine Nine organization, there are many things I don’t like about Greek Life and yet, there are plenty of things I enjoy.  I do not attempt to hide these facts; in fact, I’m pretty vocal about it.  But, I digress.  My point is that before folks from the Divine Nine (“D9”) or Me Phi Me try to come in my comments or Twitter mentions to school me on Greek Life and the like, please note that I’m not speaking on this topic in a vacuum or while wearing blinders.

*clears throat*

Sorority Sisters.  Boy, oh boy.  I could see the train wreck coming from a mile away.  I’m not referring to the part about people getting so mad that they start targeting advertisers to get the show pulled off the air.  No, not that.  In fact, I personally believe it is preposterous that it took *this* show for folks to finally say something about the negative and damaging exploitation of Black America on TV.

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Again, I digress.  From the moment I saw the sizzle reel/promo trailer in anticipation of the premiere episode of Sorority Sisters, I knew this was going to be problematic for the cast members (I think we all knew this wasn’t a good look for the D9.)  A few weeks after the airing of the first episode, news outlets reported that the two cast members of Alpha Kappa Alpha were suspended for two years.  We could only presume it was because of their participation in the show.  When this happened, again, I was not surprised.  I *was* surprised that Delta Sigma Theta hadn’t acted first.  Here’s what I said.

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Then, lo and behold, we soon learned that DST did something about the conduct of their specific cast members.  The penalty reflected exactly what I mentioned.

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EXPULSION.  You can’t ever come back. Ever.  EVER.  Do you know how much hard work goes into becoming a member of a Divine Nine organization?  Do you?!?!?!  Do you know the financial commitments required for initial membership and continued membership? The time commitment(s)(s)(s)?  These efforts are nothing to scoff at!  I mean, on the one hand, in my humble opinion, once a soror, always a soror, whether you are financial, active, expelled, or crossed but not acknowledged for some reason.  Membership – though – is a different story and it certainly has its privileges.  Explusion deprives you – forever – of those privileges.  It is the most harsh of all penalties an organization can impose, especially since membership in a D9 organization is exclusive – meaning, once you are a member of one organization, you are barred from membership in another D9 organization.  Expulsion = you are out of the D9 forever.  Forever-ever.

But again, I’m not surprised by DST’s action.  Let me explain.

The D9 organizations, in general, take reputation and image quite seriously.  Why?  BECAUSE IT IS WHAT WE HAVE TO TAKE TO THE BANK.

*clears throat*

At its core, all of the D9 organizations are the SAME.  We all do the same things: recruit, do community service, have initiatives on [insert a social issue], fraternize, and host fundraisers and donate money to causes.  As a friend recently put it —->  any differences amongst them are purely cosmetic.  And by cosmetic, he is referring to the things that support image.  Image is what people think about the organization based on the impact of its messages. Image is based on both word and deed – on the verbal, visual, and behavioral messages, both planned and unplanned, that come from an organization and leave an impression.  When you start talking about long-lasting, prevailing impression, we’re now referring to “reputation”.  Reputation is the general, overall, and long-term impression of an organization on a specific public. Reputation is rooted in what people know or think they know about an organization and what attitudes they hold based on that information. In the words of Ron Smith:

“Reputation is considered part of the social capital of an organization, something it can bank on and build on. I would argue that reputation is perhaps the most important goal of any public relations program, and certainly one of the most vulnerable aspects of any organization. Thus the need to envision it, actively pursue it, and protect it at all cost.”

If you don’t know anything about the D9, they are highly regarded and revered in the African American community. There is great history of the role and impact D9 organizations have made on American society.  There is great pride associated with membership (and utter elation when one’s child becomes a member).  It’s a big deal – whether you want to admit it or not (or whether or not you believe it should be a big deal).   Whenever you have that kind of legacy with a community of people, there will be some heavy-handed reliance on name, image, and reputation….and some heavy-backhanding to protect that name, image, and reputation.  It’s just that critical to membership recruitment/retention and fundraising efforts.

So, enter #SororitySisters.  First of all, the individual sororities did NOT provide the show a license to use any of its intellectual property (e.g. name, letters, signs, calls, signature strolls or steps) in the show.  This, in turn, meant that none of the cast members could either.  The only thing that was permissible (because it didn’t fall under any legal restriction) was the wearing of colors.  Why didn’t the sororities license these things?  To protect image and reputation, of course!  What other ways do you protect reputation and image?  By creating and implementing brand policies and licensing rules/requirements.  The more detailed and strict your bylaws, creeds, brand policies, and licensing rules, the more seriously you take your reputation and image.  There is a direct correlation, my friends.  So, I will never understand why these cast members decided to participate in a show about sorority life that their organization did not approve, but since they did so decide, why they did not portray what their respective sorority’s bylaws, creed, and/or code of conduct required of them? Every D9 organization has a rule or principle that is the equivalent of — > don’t act out in such a way that causes the world to IMPUTE or ASSOCIATE your negative attitude or negative conduct to the organization. In other words, don’t act in ways that suggest our organization approves of and encourages your negative conduct in our membership in general.   How the cast members didn’t anticipate retribution for acting outrageous on this show, I’ll never understand…

…ESPECIALLY THE LADIES OF DST.  DST has the most strict brand and licensing policies of any D9 sorority.  For example, by rule, DST paraphernalia should not be sold online, not even by licensed vendors; all items must be sold in person, with a membership card presented.  Their licensing fee is the most costly of the sororities.  Their quality control process is the most thorough and there are clear procedures regarding licensing compliance.  I can go on and on about their brand management program (it is a good one).  Why does this matter?  What does it tell us?  It tells us that their IMAGE is closely monitored and protected fiercely….in order to maintain and protect the most gleaming REPUTATION they can.

So, DST’s decision to expel these cast members from their organization was to send the CLEAR message to their respective publics (e.g. existing/future membership, viewers of the show) that the image presented by the cast members was not approved or tolerated by the specific organization and should not be associated with the organization’s goals, objectives, or legacy.  They also sent a clear message to existing membership to think twice about trying something like this in the future.  I cannot say that I disapprove the decision of DST on this one.  The women of AKA should be thanking the Lord Jehovah for grace and mercy for just a suspension.  Yeah, it’s embarrassing and you’ll always be that one who did something stupid, but at least you get the chance to come back.  It will give them time to re-think their decision and take steps to be better and do better.

Now, for the rest of the D9 organizations?  I suspect that at everyone’s next convention/boule/conclave, there will be some talk about bylaw amendments re membership conduct and what is and is not acceptable in the media (e.g. television, film, online).  It should definitely be included when training members on “risk management”.   After #SororitySisters, everyone should be looking for ways to tighten up their respective brand management programs, for sure.

***

In a previous life, I worked for nearly 10 years in the legal industry, with my last purely legal role being lead attorney for an intellectual property litigation firm.  I started my career at one of the top intellectual property management companies in the world that served to protect and defend the biggest brands to ever walk this earth.  After a come-to-Jesus moment, I found my true passion lies in the management of brands, their communication plans, and maintaining their reputations over time.  #fixer #crisis #reputation  You can learn more about me at trezanayatkins.com.  You can ALWAYS find me on Twitter  – @trezanay.  

Wanna see other posts I’ve written about branding, reputation, image, and communication strategy?

Kim Karsdashian  –  Lisa Price/Carol’s Daughter  – Awesomely Luvvie

Erykah Badu –  Just For The Bloggers

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Thanks for this breakdown. Whew, my head is SPINNING!

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  2. Brooke says:

    Thank you for dissecting this. The only part that didn’t sit well with me was when you mentioned, “In fact, I personally believe it is preposterous that it took *this* show for folks to finally say something about the negative and damaging exploitation of Black America on TV.” I honestly believe that there are two different issues here. As you note, these organizations have very strict licensing and brand policies. Unfortunately, black people as a whole do not hold ourselves to the same standard nor govern ourselves in the same manner. When an individual person decides to represent themselves in such a way that is degrading I can say all I want how much it is not appropriate, but that is still their individual choice. Our organizations promote positive images of blacks in entertainment, but we do not always get the support from ALL blacks. If we as a people could get behind one another and really support more of the positive imaging then we wouldn’t even have to worry about boycotting these shows. We all have differing opinions on what is appropriate and what is not. It will be very difficult for us to come together on this. Maybe we need a black union that holds itself to a higher standard and could expel folks when they do not uphold what we deem appropriate. As for now, there is no consequence for our bad imaging. Until there are some real consequences we will continue to get more of the same.

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  3. Hey Soror. I love your article. Just wanted to correct one thing. You said you were a founding member of a chapter. The 7 Pearls of our Illustrious organization are the only “Founders.” When you create a new chapter of the organization, you are Chartering a Chapter of that organization, not founding. So you are not a “Founder” you are a Charter Member. Otherwise this was a great read and appreciate your voice.

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    1. ze brand-o-logist says:

      Point duly noted. I would also say that as Epistoleus of said chapter, I used the correct language in drafting the copy for our website and other press/marketing materials. Count the language use here as plain language use in informal writing rather than an attempt to usurp or trivialize the status of our Founders.

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