Unfortunately for Rutgers, the basketball news that quickly became national news was bad news for the University that would become a huge PR crisis for weeks.
On a video released to ESPN, which aired on April 2, Rutgers mens’ basketball coach Mike Rice was seen abusing student athletes verbally and physically. The video shows the basketball coach throwing basketballs and shoving his athletes and verbally degrading them during team practice.
In addition to the video coming to light it was also revealed that the University knew about Rice’s behavior since November. Apparently Rutgers’ (former) Athletics Director Tim Pernetti placed Rice on suspension, fined him $75,000 and asked him to take anger management classes.
More will be revealed as the situation plays out in the media but it’s clear that Rutgers didn’t handle the situation with the best interest of student athletes or the University in mind.
Following a media fire-storm Rutgers fired Rice and apologized for his actions and their delay in action. In addition several people from Rutgers have resigned including Pernetti, John B. Wolf, Rutgers’ interim senior vice president and general counsel, and assistant coach Jimmy Martelli.
In the fall, Rutgers’ legal team and members of the Athletics department were aware of the situation. At the point the implementation of a public relations plan should have been used to get ahead of the situation rather than behind.
If Rice was fired in the fall and an apology had been issued from the University to parents and students there would have never been so much publicity and backlash.
Like all PR crises situations there are a few key rules to follow:
Be transparent and ethical: Use morally sound judgement when responding to a situation. Trying to hide a situation that will cause you bad press is inappropriate. Get ahead of the situation, take responsibility and then take action. In the Rutgers case, rather than taking action against Rice, Pernetti quietly suspended him. To the media and public this was a cover-up and unethical.
Act quickly: As much as we would like this to be true, bad situations don’t disappear. You have to take action before allowing the media to force you to act. In the Rutgers case the university waited for almost 5 months until the media exposed the video. They should have gotten ahead of the situation and acted immediately.
Work with all offices in your organization: Lawyers don’t make the best PR practitioners. When general counsel or the legal team in your office believes they have handled a situation work with them to make sure there are no loose ends. Communicate all scenarios with different departments in your organization to avoid problems.
Crises do happen and they are often unavoidable. However, there are often situations that can be avoided by practicing appropriate public relations measures. It’s always better to get ahead of a situation when you can rather than chasing it when it becomes to big. For more information visit the JASE Public Relations page.
image credit: by Sports Logos