When Lawrence Lokman was head of communications at UCLA during the early 2000s, he worked with three separate chancellors. The three chancellors had their own style, but they shared one thing in common when it came to public relations: They supported Lokman wholeheartedly and made sure he was able to do his job without any obstacles getting in the way. “They sent a clear message to the administrative leadership that this is a critical function,” says Lokman, who is now general manager of Window In Communications, a PR agency specializing in nonprofit and higher education communications. “Each [chancellor] communicated to his executive team that they were to engage with communications the moment any issue surfaced that could attract media attention or affect the campus’ reputation.”
That’s sound thinking for administrators and communicators at the university and collegiate levels, particularly in light of the latest Rutgers debacle. Rutgers has been reeling in the past few months, following a series of missteps that has put the state school under the media spotlight.
The latest episode involves Julie Hermann, who was recently introduced as the school’s athletic director. Hermann was recruited to replace Tim Pernetti, who resigned in the wake of the Mike Rice scandal. Rice, the former basketball coach at Rutgers, was fired after a video surfaced showing him abusing his players and pelting them with hateful epithets.
But soon after Hermann was introduced reports emerged alleging abusive behavior by Hermann when she was worked in the athletics departments at Tennessee and Louisville universities, including reportedly abusive conduct toward players on a volleyball team she coached, per The New York Times.
In an email obtained by USA Today Sports, Richard Edwards, co-chair of the Rutgers’ search committee, acknowledges that Rutgers officials were aware of Hermann’s involvement in past lawsuits before hiring her as athletic director.
Parker Executive Search, a firm contracted for $70,000 to guide the committee through the process, found a 1996 pregnancy discrimination lawsuit involving Hermann when she was the volleyball coach at Tennessee as well as a 2008 wrongful termination lawsuit at Louisville, according to USA Today.
Despite the ongoing controversy, Rutgers is standing by Hermann, who is scheduled to start work at the school on June 17. At the same time, the university is taking pains to cauterize its PR wounds, spending an additional $150,000 to hire Hill & Knowlton to handle crisis communications, Rutgers confirmed.
INSULAR NO MORE
The Rutgers debacle—less than two years after the Penn State pedophilia scandal—underscores the need for colleges and universities throughout the country to get more schooling in communications and PR.
“It’s human nature to believe that a scandal will happen to ‘them’ and not to ‘us,’” says Tanya Meck, senior VP and managing director of Global Strategy Group. “For PR pros, our challenge is to impress upon [academic institutions] that not only will this probably happen, but you better be prepared.”
Meck offers three tips for PR execs who work in higher education to get a better handle on communications.
1. Ramp up the time and investment on planning for what could possibly go wrong and when things do go wrong, be sure to involve people who go beyond the school’s “inner circle, so you aren’t functioning in an ‘echo chamber,’” Meck says.
2. Nail down what the process and/or protocol should be if the school has to deal with a crisis. Have a crisis mangement team in place.
3. Be clear on the “response phase,” Meck says. Be transparent. Be quick. Be proactive. Take responsibility and, if it’s appropriate, apologize.
In the analog age, colleges and universities may have been able to get away with being insular. Not so in the digital age, with the media waiting to pounce 24/7/365 on the slightest whiff of impropriety.
Academia “is not used to intense media scrutiny,” says Bryan DeAngelis, principal of ASGK Public Strategies, which has worked with Butler University, Dartmouth College and Fordham Law School.
When facing a crisis, universities and colleges have to learn “how to handle that intensity while getting their ducks in a row and making sure they’re not just serving the media, but parents, teachers, alumni and donors.”
He adds, “They need to communicate [to all of those stakeholders], and that’s where PR comes in.” PRN
Bryan DeAngelis, firstname.lastname@example.org; Lawrence Lokman, email@example.com; Tanya Meck, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Time for Schools to Get Rid of the Dunce Caps
By Steven Fink
The current public relations crisis engulfing Rutgers University and its athletic department is surprising only in that it occurred at all.
For my new book, “Crisis Communications,” I researched extensively Penn State’s inept bungling of its pedophilia crisis. In the chapter “Say It Ain’t So, Joe!” I enumerate the many crisis management and crisis communications blunders that brought one of the nation’s largest universities to its knees, and took the school to task for failing to retain competent crisis management counsel in its time of need.
At no time did the school ever gain control of its crisis communications message, which compounded the situation and enabled the accuracy-challenged Freeh Report and devastating NCAA sanctions to unfurl unchecked. Every college should have gone to schoolpun intendedon Penn State’s errors. Rutgers slept in.
We always advise our crisis clients that learning from your mistakes is prudent, but it is always better to learn from the mistakes of others, especially those in the same field. Publicly funded universities, like Penn State and Rutgers, have a tougher row to hoe because there are more constituents with microphones and megaphones, and those institutions deal with kids, which raises the stakes exponentially.
Rutgers’ crisis first erupted when former basketball coach Mike Rice was videotaped, repeatedly, verbally and physically abusing players in practice, and on a YouTube video that went viral. He was eventuallybut tardilyfired, and then-athletic director Tim Pernetti was ousted for his poor handling of the matter.
You would expect Rutgers to learn from the Mike Rice saga and thoroughly and exhaustively vet its next AD in a manner befitting Caesar’s wife. Instead, the school hired as its new AD Julie Hermann, with enough documented baggage of abusing her volleyball players from her days as a coach at Louisville and Tennessee to more than fill a redcap’s wagon. What was Rutgers thinking?
Good crisis management and common sense dictate that you should not hire a replacement who has been tarred with the same abusive brush as the miscreant that caused the uproar in the first place. Any hint of impropriety should have been a red flag, and in Ms. Hermann’s case there was more than a hint. Moreover, had the search firm or committee bothered to interview her former players, there would have been ample time to blow the whistle to stop play.
Like Penn State before it, Rutgers’ crisis management counselif they have oneshould play an active role in assessing and alleviating the current crisis situation.
Steven Fink is president and CEO of Lexicon Communications (CrisisManagement.com) and the author of “Crisis Communications: The Definitive Guide to Managing the Message.” (McGraw-Hill).
This article appeared in the June 10 issue of PR News. Subscribe to PR News today to receive weekly comprehensive coverage of the most fundamental PR topics from visual storytelling to crisis management to media training.