Ronn Torossian
Ronn Torossian

After allegations of sexual misconduct were leveled against Lawrence Krauss, a prominent theoretical physicist and Arizona State University professor, he announced he’d retire from the university at the end of the academic year.

This was just the beginning of the PR crisis for Krauss, a well-known teacher, speaker and author. Dogging him through the rest of the year was the university’s internal investigation, which discovered that at least some of the allegations have merit. After that investigation, Dr. Krauss was booted from his position as director of ASU’s Origins Project.

Krauss was, understandably, upset by this, as he’d been the one to found that project when he joined the ASU faculty in 2008. Further, Krauss characterized the university’s investigation as “unfair.”

Krauss has been direct and forthright in his characterization of the investigation, saying: “To be clear, I have never harassed or assaulted anyone and have most certainly not exhibited gender discrimination in my professional dealings at the university or elsewhere … (I have not been allowed to) present my side or to cross-examine witnesses … I look to the future for new and different challenges and opportunities.”

Representatives at the university responded by declaring Krauss’ statements incorrect: “Dr. Krauss’ description of our review process is inaccurate … Dr. Krauss chose to retire rather than to move forward with that process.”

With two competing narratives and precious little public evidence to go on, this case really becomes an example of who has the most believable story. Due to Dr. Krauss’ public persona and fame, he will certainly have his defenders.

In addition, there’s been some pushback against a growing culture that condemns prominent men based on allegations rather than proof. Many would say that’s the nature of this situation. That, in some cases, definitive proof is difficult to come by, if not impossible to present. And, once again, that brings us back to messaging, and who is the most believable.

With that in mind, and without commenting in any way about Dr. Krauss’ guilt or innocence, let’s look at some criteria your messaging must fit if you want to win in the court of public opinion.

First, your story needs to be plausible. Sure, there have been some things that are, to borrow a phrase, stranger than fiction. But, when the chips are down — and none of those chips is actual evidence — a sketchy story only detracts from your authenticity.

You also need to give people a reason to want to believe you beyond their own bias. Sure, people will bring their own bias into a situation, and this is a very powerful factor, but it’s not the only factor. You need to give people a solid reason both to believe your story (plausibility) and a reason to want to believe your story.

Finally, be careful with your facts. When your story includes definable and provable facts, those facts lend credence to the parts of the narrative that cannot be proven.

If you can prove certain behavior or facts in question are unlikely, based on similar information that can be proved, you’re one step closer to fielding a narrative people will want to believe. 

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Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5WPR, a leading PR firm.