When a conservative group on the University of Texas campus planned to host an event called "Catch an Illegal Immigrant," controversy spread quickly.
The event was organized by Lorenzo Garcia, chair of the Young Conservatives of Texas at the University of Texas (YCT), who asked his members to capture students on the Austin campus wearing T-shirts labelled "illegal immigrants." Members who turned someone in received the "reward" of a $25 gift card.
Garcia’s PR campaign created an immediate firestorm.
The University Leadership Initiative (ULI), for example, staged protests and circulated petitions to get the university to call off the event.
"This is extremely offensive and unacceptable," said Deborah Alemu, ULI's vice president.
Responded Garcia: "After the University President and the Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement released statements denouncing the event we planned as violating the university's honor code, I spoke with our chapter's members, and they are both concerned that the university will retaliate against them and that the protest against the event could create a safety issue for our volunteers."
University of Texas President Bill Powers released a statement that said:
"The proposed YCT event is completely out of line with the values we espouse at The University of Texas at Austin. Our students, faculty and the entire university work hard both to promote diversity and engage in a respectful exchange of ideas,” said Powers. “The Wednesday event does not reflect that approach or commitment."
Garcia cancelled the event.
Of Hispanic descent, Garcia said he had received messages referring to him as an "Hispanic Uncle Tom." He says he supports immigration, as long as it is done legally.
The controversy was heavily covered by the media, including local, regional, and national press. The blogosphere was heavily engaged in chastising the event as well, which quickly focused on the overall issue of immigration reform, now on the national agenda.
Garcia has said that debate on the controversial issue was his main goal in staging the event.
That certainly did happen.
Some Texas Republican politicians were tainted by the event as well, even though they reportedly had nothing to do with it. Garcia used to work for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is a Republican.
The event shows that although PR stunts can work to set off debate about important national issues (a recent government initiative that "buzzed driving is drunk driving" is a good example), they can sometimes backfire and cross the line of good taste.
The Hispanic communications director for the Republican National Committee, Izzy Santa, perhaps said it best when she tweeted to the Texas Young Conservatives:
“A provocative stunt doesn’t advance a conversation when it’s offensive.”
Not a bad message for any PR professional.