A Fine Mess at Syracuse, A New Level of PR Scrutiny

November 18th, 2011 by Matt Friedman

This is the question I have asked myself all day: Like a doctor trying to diagnose a relative, can I fairly evaluate the adversity communications management efforts of Syracuse University, the institution that helped provide me with both my career and my family?

I’m trying, as professionally as possible.

Now, a little more than 24 hours after ESPN first reported that 35-year assistant basketball coach and alumnus Bernie Fine is accused of molesting two former ballboys, I just Googled “Syracuse University.” Eight of the top ten listings under the name of this 141 year-old institution are now about this situation. Though no charges have been filed, these accusations have quickly branded the institution. Remarkably, so has something else.

Since the story first broke, much attention has been paid to how the University, and the coaching staff, has handled this from a PR standpoint. This has been much more than Twitterati “buzz.” Bona fide journalists have weighed in, almost from the moment the story first broke, as part of their reporting.

The University has received high marks and, despite my potential for bias, I have to agree. The first ESPN story included this thorough and careful statement from a University spokesperson. Then, at 7am today, the University community woke up to this letter signed by the Chancellor, in email inboxes and on social media, which was particularly effective. When we teach crisis management in media training, we tell our clients to do three things in these communications: lay out the facts, provide appropriate reassurance and express concern for people affected. The University went three for three.

As for the coaches, Fine issued this statement through his attorney. It was obviously written by the attorney, but was much more complete compared to most statements by people being investigated by police, something journalists pointed out immediately.

Longtime head coach Jim Boeheim, who since won the National Championship in 2003 has spoken to the public with unvarnished candor, has unloaded on the accusers in the most blunt of terms and supported Fine in the most glowing of terms. Writers have wondered aloud all day long whether it’s the right PR move. Boeheim is speaking his mind on his own terms and I’m sure he’s not asking for approval. Just like in business PR when we deal with “cowboys,” they have to own their words forever.

Here’s the very early lesson for crisis communicators – your work is now part of the story. Don’t waste time, don’t lose focus and stick to fundamentals. The media isn’t just watching those at the center of the story, they’re also watching you.

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