Crisis Planning - Should You Be Worried about your Yearbook?


This blog is always on the look out for emerging risks that require addressing in crisis planning.

The newest threat is that Yearbook stuffed in a box in your basement.

A recent Wall Street Journal article  suggests high-profile executives and business owners should conduct ‘opposition analysis’ on their yearbooks to assess the potential of any damaging pre-digital images.

So how worried should you be about what’s in your Yearbooks?

The scandals surrounding Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, State Senator Tommy Norment and Justice Brett Kavanaugh indicate, yes, you should dig around in your basement to dust off your old books and assess for potentially incriminating images and statements.

Governor Northam’s designated page in his 1984 medical school Yearbook includes a photo of two people, one in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan uniform.

Northam, after initially apologizing and admitting that he was in the offensive photograph, stated he was not in the photo and had never seen the photo. He did, however, admit to wearing blackface in a separate incident to imitate Michael Jackson. Northam’s undergraduate yearbook also labels him with a nickname containing a racial insult.

Virginia State Senator, Tommy Norment, served as managing editor of his 1968 Yearbook, which featured images of blackface and Confederate battle flags, and contained racist slurs, including the N-word. When a Virginian-Pilot reporter confronted Norment about the Yearbook on February 7th, he reportedly said, “The only thing I’m talking about today is the budget.”

In 2018, as part of his Supreme Court nomination process, Justice Kavanaugh’s Yearbooks were debated before U.S. Congress, during which he was asked to explain lines written on his page that appeared to indicate immoral behavior.

Steve Cody, chief executive of public relations agency Peppercomm and chairman of the Institute for Public Relations, suggests companies should be doing background checks on all senior level and board hires, looking at the past 25 years or more assessing everything from high school yearbooks to fraternity nicknames.

The public are not readily accepting excuses that high power individuals were simply young, naïve or excusing behavior based the amount of time that has passed.

The Journal article suggests that if you do find an incriminating item in your yearbook the best option is think through whether there is a way to explain the incident if it does come out, as well as who could provide helpful context for the image.

As with most crises, if a past indiscretion does come out, experts advise honesty and accountability.

You also have to respond quickly, which is why you need an up to date plan accessible and activated via your smartphone on the In Case of Crisis app.

Go find those old yearbooks and, hopefully, enjoy exclusively pleasant reminiscing.