PR and UVA: The Case Behind the Letters

In late 2014 and early 2015 there was one journalistic case that was every PR student’s dream, every PR professional’s nightmare, and every college students warning of what could happen at those movie-like frat parties they all wanted to attend.  When Rolling Stone published a piece “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA”, all they intended to do was shed light on the every growing problem of sexual assault on college campuses, using one of the most known party schools in the nation, University of Virginia. What they didn’t know was they were in for a ride that would last almost a year and show how shotty journalism and lack of facts could cause a PR super storm.

Before we get to the investigations, lawsuits, and overall resigning, we should start at the beginning, way back in 2014 when Rolling Stone writer Sabrinia Rubin Erdely was looking for a college assault or rape case to be the focus of her story. She found a girl who was referred to as “Jackie” who was gang raped during the first few weeks of her freshmen year. “Erdely says she spent weeks corroborating Jackie’s account and finds her completely credible.” (Hartman, 2015) However, when looking at this through the proactive phase, a step was missed. It is important in any form of journalism to find more than one source or side of the story to clarify it, especially in a story dealing with something as personal as sexual assault. In the days after the article’s publication the public learned that almost no one else was interviewed or consulted about the story. “There’s another basic principle in journalism: Every story has two sides. In fact, every story has many sides. Rolling Stone decided to run with just one of them”(Farhi, 2014) If Rolling Stone had seminars or tests about journalistic guidelines and how they should be followed out, they could have avoided the entire situation. Instead they had a writer who basically only consulted a single source.

Rolling Stone obviously lacked strategic methods in handling the situation.  They had no crisis management plan because for a long time they simply avoided the fact that there was a crisis. At first they completely stood by their publication, disregarding the facts that surfaced everyday showing some of the plot holes. Once they saw there was too much against them they completely abandoned their source, saying she was untrustworthy and shaming her in the public. This was the first part of the react stage, but it was handled incredibly poorly.

Now for years journalism and public relations have been taught as one degree through they are very different, so it wouldn’t be an outlandish assumption to assume that the journalists would be able to handle any PR problem that came their way. But, Rolling Stone did exactly what every PR student is told not to do. When called out with evidence of their wrong doing they denied and denied and denied until it was impossible to deny anymore, so they blamed their source. “A journalist is willing to do nearly anything to find a story, lead or get an insider to give them the scoop.A public relations specialist works to cover-up any story which could put their organization, or an organization they work for, in harm’s way.” (Zelinka, 2013). Obviously this is false because while Rolling Stone went pretty far to get a story, they were also the ones putting themselves in harm’s way.

When the recovery stage came, it was too little too late for many. The police came out and said that there was no real evidence that the party or rape too place, but that didn’t mean something horrible didn’t happy. Rolling Stone recalled the story and apologized, Erdely apologized, and months later the managing editor Will Dana stepped down. While this may helped restore the image of the magazine,it probably would have helped more if it happened much sooner.(Hartman, 2015)

This was a mishandling of PR through and through. The magazine refused to own up to it’s mistakes and did so too late. However, if researching UVA they actually handled the situation pretty well. However, now Rolling Stone has several lawsuits on its hands. And to think this all could have been avoided with  a little help form the conflict management model.



Hartman, M(2015) Everything we know about the UVA rape case [updated]. New York Magazine. Retrieved from:

Farhi, P. (2014, Dec 06). How rolling stone failed in its story of alleged rape at the university of virginia . The Washington PostRetrieved from

Zelinka, M. (2013, Oct 02). The confusion with public relations and journalism.University Wire Retrieved from