Rutgers: The PR Epilogue

If you’re in PR, it’s never good when your alma mater is one of the PR/crisis communications case studies in “what not to do” that you will use as the prime example for the next 20 years.

I’m glad my degree in is English.

So the dominos have fallen since the “Day of The Tape” earlier this week and someone who I trusted and admired (still do, btw) has fallen on this sword. His bosses have held the obligatory news conference (so poorly I might add that I almost jumped in my car in the Virginia mountains and made the seven hour ride to New Brunswick) and tried to explain how it wasn’t their fault it was really his.

So as I always try to do in this space, I will now attempt to take the emotion out of it and see what PR lessons we all can learn from “Rutgers Takes The World Hostage: Day 3” (insert SportsCenter music here).

As he mentioned in his resignation letter, former Rutgers Athletic Director Tim Pernetti said that his instincts were to fire then-basketball coach Mike Rice when he first viewed the tape of Rice beating on and throwing, cursing and slurring at players during practice. He then added that “Rutgers decided to follow a process involving university lawyers, human resources professionals, and outside counsel.” He then added that after reviewing the independent investigative report, the consensus was that university policy would not justify dismissal.

As you know, I know and have worked with Tim Pernetti. I consider him a friend and think he is one of the most talented and out-of-the-box thinkers in his profession. I’ve seen his forward thinking exhibited on his work on RVision which now livestreams hundreds of sporting events online and on mobile each athletic year. I’ve seen him embrace social media and become one of the most connected athletic administrators in the country. I’ve seen firsthand how he saw a problem and immediately fixed it, whether it was with one of the student athletes, or with the quality of the food at one of his sports venues. In all these cases, he used his years of experience on the field, on the air and in administration and relied on his “gut instinct” to make things right.

Except for this one time, and it cost him and all Rutgers fans dearly.

He has publicly admitted that mistake and apologized for it. And I for one accept that apology.

In PR, in crisis situations, we are always asked our professional opinion. We weigh in through our filters and experience of how actions will be accepted by the public and translated though the media. But then too often we defer to HR pros who want to give a second chance and to lawyers who worry about reputation and money. I have been guilty of being deferential on more than one occasion.

But no more. Not me. Not ever.

I will now pull out of my pocket the example of my alma mater to remind the HR pros, the lawyers and the outside consultants. This is what happens when they worry too much about how much money it will cost to buy out a contract. This is what happens when you worry about how it will look to others if you set the wrong example and set the wrong precedent. This is what happens when you don’t think the tape will ever surface.

Because you can fill the room with all the experts you want but as we see in the case of Rutgers, all the experts in the world can’t save you in the court of public opinion.

And the price that you ultimately pay is far greater than the precedent or the buyout.

This is the price you pay as an institution when you don’t listen to the smart and savvy PR person who wanted to follow his gut.

Jon Newman

In 2002 Jon cofounded The Hodges Partnership and has helped to grow it into one of the country’s largest public relations firms (based on O’Dwyer’s annual rankings). Jon has taught communications as an adjunct professor at VCU, speaks regularly at conferences and meetings and blogs and tweets about public relations and marketing issues.

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