Friday, February 6, 2015

How Libraries Harm Themselves with "Crisis Managers" (Instead of Customer and Community Service)

The ongoing Orland Park Public Library (OPPL) child porn scandal is an excellent case study that illustrates how a "crisis management" mentality employed by library staff harms not only the community but also the library itself in the end. Here, internal incident reports uncovered in 2013 revealed that for many years OPPL management was aware of illegal and sexual activity happening in this library (but its director, Mary Weimar, chose not to call the police). This included child pornography being accessed in the OPPL and men masturbating openly and accosting women and children sexually in this facility. This library believed it could keep these incidents under wraps and never expected the reports to be uncovered in Freedom of Information requests.

When the Orland Park community heard about what was going on and spoke out against this, the Mayor called for the library to start filtering its Internet to block illegal content and discourage further crimes. The OPPL's highly-paid spokesman, Bridget Bittman, aggressively lied to the news media in print, TV, and radio interviews as part of a "crisis management strategy" that largely maligned and attacked the library's critics (instead of addressing the child porn, masturbation, and other sexual incidents in the OPPL). The community was concerned for the safety of children in the library, but Bittman shifted into pure damage control mode…then escalated that into outright lies that seem to have been intended to distract the public from the OPPL's own FOIA-able incident reports.

Since the OPPL to this day has no explanation for why police were not called immediately when child porn was accessed in this library, Bittman tried to change the conversation and counted on a complicit media to never ask her or library management any tough questions about the disastrous decisions made in the OPPL.

Bittman later bragged about her public relations efforts at a "crisis communications workshop" sponsored by the American Library Association and held at the Burr Ridge RAILS (Reaching Across Illinois Libraries) videoconferencing location in December 2013, where she (and OPPL director Mary Weimar) taught around 100 other public library employees how to, essentially, cover up bad things that happen in public libraries and scare away critics and members of the public who discover what's been going on.

This is what the ALA calls "crisis management": lying to the public and counting on the fact that most people will believe anything that the library tells them, whether it is true or not. It is shameful. When something terrible happens at a public library, management should own up to its mistakes and take concrete steps to ensure children are never harmed in that library again. Library management should not follow the OPPL example…which was to aggressively lie to the public and lash out childishly at critics, hoping that eventually people would get sick of the story and stop listening or caring.

Public libraries occupy a default place of trust in the hearts and minds of most Americans. That's largely because people coast-to-coast have fond memories of libraries and librarians from their childhoods. Most people remember walking on a class field trip to the local library or feeling excited when signing up for their first library card and checking out some Dr. Seuss or Peter Rabbit. So, it's difficult for Americans to think about the local public library being a dangerous place for children here in the year 2015. This is like imagining the local swimming hole where they played as kids now being infested by toothsome, hungry sharks. How could that happen at the place where they had so much fun when they were young? But, some libraries are just not the safe places they used to be thirty or more years ago and the American Library Association is mostly to blame for that.

The ALA counts on a positive reservoir of warm, fuzzy feelings that Americans have for libraries being an ace-in-the-hole when it's discovered that something bad has happened in a public library. In fact, ALA "crisis management" publications remind library employees that the public will generally believe what library management says, because people's brains (and hearts) default to believing the library. "Why would the library lie?" is an assumption that people have been conditioned to make. Emotionally, people think back to the kindly librarians they remember in the 1970s and 1980s and know that those wonderful ladies would never lie. Certainly they would never lie about sex in the library or anything harming children. So, people want to believe that librarians working in the year 2015 wouldn't lie either and would never allow children to be harmed in a library.

But, library management today does lie…and Orland Park is a case study in that. Bittman was asked by the ALA to speak at not one, but TWO, separate "crisis management workshops." She was forced to cancel her second appearance in October 2014 because reports of her first presentation in December 2013 were made public and her documented pattern of lies became too embarrassing for the ALA. This all included:

* Bittman lying to print media in October and November of 2013 to discredit and defame a mother of two who witnessed a man sexually arousing himself at an OPPL computer; here, Bittman engaged in a strategy of painting the woman who complained as a liar whose "story changes over time." Discrediting witnesses and defaming critics is classic "crisis management strategy" endorsed by the ALA because it allows a library to escape dealing with its problems and instead focus on "killing the messenger." Look for this strategy wherever anyone reports sexual activity in a public library…it's very similar to how for many years rape victims were called "sluts" on the witness stand to discredit them so that rapists could go free. Now, the ALA encourages library management to use this tactic on mothers who complain about dangers to children in public libraries. Kill the messenger. Destroy the witness. Frighten anyone else from ever coming forward so that libraries never have to deal with the sexual behavior of patrons who have been arousing themselves to sexual content on public computers all day.

* Bittman lying on the TV and the radio, claiming that nothing bad had ever happened in the OPPL; here, Bittman strategically counted on the reporters she spoke with not discussing any of the OPPL's internal incident reports that clearly showed that child pornography was accessed and that sexual and other illegal activity had been occurring at the OPPL. The ALA endorses lying to the media and telling reporters that nothing bad happened because it's likely that reporters will just take the library's word on that and not bother to FOIA the incident reports themselves. Reporters are lazy, but they also don't want to dig too deep and find something damaging to a library. When they do get the reports and see what's been happening, most reporters seem reluctant to write a negative story about a library. It appears they feel bad doing it (as if they were tasked with writing a negative story about a favorite teacher or friend from childhood), so they will bend over backwards to avoid talking about child porn being accessed in a place like the OPPL. One reporter candidly admitted that he "didn't want to be the guy who brought down such a nice library by writing about the child porn there." That same reporter said that if he did write about the child porn in the OPPL and the other sex crimes that happened there that his peers at the Chicago Tribune would never let him hear the end of it, because he'd be "the ass***e that went after the library." The ALA counts on this.

* Bittman lying to local media about the many instances of lawbreaking by the OPPL board and management; here, Bittman repeatedly lied throughout 2014 about the various times that the Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act were violated by the OPPL. Again, the media just printed Bittman's talking points without fact-checking her. This is another thing the ALA counts on, that reporters will assume the library is telling the truth and not perform any due-diligence to check basic facts. The OPPL would break the law, but Bittman would tell the media it was allowed to do whatever it did. A month later, the Attorney General's office would issue a determination that the OPPL had indeed violated the law (just as critics pointed out); Bittman would then tell reporters that this determination was "nonbinding" and essentially didn't matter. When the OPPL was sued in circuit court to compel compliance with the law, Bittman lied again to media, claiming that library management essentially just woke up one day and decided to start following the law (but it had nothing at all to do with being sued). Yah, right. But, again…reporters refused to call Bittman out on this or point out that Bittman's story kept changing over time. This woman is as credible and believable as "Baghdad Bob", Saddam Hussein's old Minister of Propaganda, who famously said on live TV that "no American troops are in Baghdad" during the US invasion of Iraq…just as a convoy of American army vehicles rumbled along a street behind him in clear camera view.

This shameless and amateur lying would be funny if the problems at the OPPL weren't so serious.

Bridget Bittman is a laughable and childish individual who makes faces during board meetings and lashes out foolishly at her critics…but what she's doing as the OPPL's spokesman is truly damaging to the community (and to the library itself). It is simultaneously sad and hilarious that she's dispatched by a public body to represent them as their spokesman. It's more than a little horrifying that Bittman costs taxpayers over $80,000/year in compensation and benefits.

Every time she lies to the media, she's undermining the public's trust a little more. The ALA believes that public libraries have an unlimited reservoir of such trust, but I don't buy that. Bittman, like other "crisis managers" out there, seems to think that the public has a short memory and won't remember month to month what she's said…or what lies she's told. But, I don't buy that either.

Flipping through old newspapers, it's easy to see her "crisis management strategy" for the OPPL is a pattern of obvious lies. When she's burned on one, she shifts to something else…and counts on the reporter she's dealing with that day to spin the story to the best advantage of the OPPL. This is like taking the cards she's dealt and adding a new layer to a house of cards that keeps getting higher and higher with each new level of lies told. I think the ALA tells her that she can go as high as the Sears Tower with all this…but the OPPL's "crisis management strategy" has ratcheted the stakes up again and again in such a way that we've crossed a point of no return where not even the media is going to be able to save these people.

The community in Orland Park wants a leadership change in this library. When that happens, it's likely that the position of highly-paid spokesman and "crisis manager" is going to be reevaluated…right after the new leadership finally addresses the dangers to children in this library and ensures that child porn is never again accessed in the OPPL and that men no longer use this building as a masturbation lounge or a place to stalk women and children sexually.

The ALA's "crisis management strategies" are all based on the assumption that if a public library attacks its critics and uses the media to spread lies that eventually its critics will get tired and walk away. These are the tactics of Saul Alinsky, based on his Rules for Radicals. Attacking critics and alienating them from allies by discrediting them or otherwise assailing them is classic Alinsky. It works in 95% of cases, because the people who are most likely to complain about bad things happening in libraries are working parents who care about their children…and they wither and cringe when attacked by a "crisis manager" like Bittman.

The Orland Park Public Library child pornography scandal is a case study in not only how foolish "crisis management strategy" is in general, but what happens when the advice given by the ALA comes up against a community and critics that are not scared away by these Alinsky tactics. The OPPL is a public library that allowed child porn to be accessed without consequence and has allowed sexual and other illegal activity to occur there…and then believed it could continue business as usual by dispatching Bridget Bittman to tell lies to the media and malign the library's critics.

Something like $300,000 in legal bills and a string of defeats before the Attorney General's office and a judge in Cook County circuit court later, the OPPL is a cautionary tale for what happens to a public library when it ignores the wants and needs of its community and listens to the ALA instead.

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