Crisis Communications for Colleges, or, Time for Schools to Remove the Dunce Caps and the Blinders


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 enumerated 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 school – pun intended – on Penn State’s errors. Rutgers slept in.

Chief among Penn State’s failings was that it turned a blind eye to easily recognizable crisis prodromes (warning signs of potential problems) since it was easier to look the other way. Thus, when it was first reported to former university president Graham Spanier that former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was “horsing around” in the school showers with a ten-year old boy, both of them naked, the school did nothing to fully investigate. This “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” mindset imperiled the school and sent it reeling down a sordid, decade-long crisis path. Another lesson lost on Rutgers.

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. Those are tangible prodromes. 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 – always a potential lightening rod for controversy and crises – 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 eventually – but tardily – fired, and then-athletic director Tim Pernetti was ousted for his poor handling of the matter.

You would thus expect Rutgers to learn from this 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 as a replacement someone 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. Plus, search committees and search firms for some reason seem to shy away from interviewing former students and players when hiring for academia, and that is a huge mistake. It seems that many of Ms. Hermann’s former players would have gladly provided an earful.

Like Penn State before it, Rutgers’ crisis management counsel – if they have one – should play an active role in assessing and alleviating the current crisis situation. Penn State failed in doing that and its president was ousted. Rutgers has yet to learn this lesson and its even money whether Rutgers’ president, Robert Barchi, is the next to go.