Category Archives: Duke University

Don Imus and Michael Nifong–Two Careers on the rocks

Two interesting situations for crisis managers to think about: Don Imus and the Duke Lacrosse situation.

In the Don Imus situation the news is the advertising boycott. In the Duke situation, it is the dropping of all charges.

Imus is toast, like Michael Richards. The comments are so egregious that it is hard to interpret them as anything other than reflecting some deep-seated animosity and thoroughly unacceptable attitudes–unacceptable to our times and social sensitivities. I find it interesting that when white guys make these kinds of racial slurs that they go to the Jesse Jacksons and the Al Sharptons to make their apologies. One thought–the effectiveness of that is wearing off. While it may have been surprising before, it has suddenly become a habit. That may mean that even more stunning and surprising ways of showing remorse are required. In crisis management terms, apologies and remorse must always be accompanied by actions that demonstrate that you understand the seriousness of the offense and that will give some assurance that it will not be repeated. It is hard to accept any apology in these sorts of situations without the requisite acceptance that the offense is a sign of something quite significantly wrong. And that is both hard to do and potentially damaging. What can Imus say? I recognize that at heart I am an anti-female racist and now I am going to fix it? That’s why these sudden, unexpected, and deeply offensive and very public comments are very difficult to overcome. Michael Jackson is in a similar situation. Forgiveness becomes possible if he would be willing to recognize that he has a sexual problem involving children. But such an admission would be career suicide, but without it, there is little hope for reconciliation with a public that expects better.

As for the Duke situation, what is interesting to me is the white hat/black hat phenomenon. When the story broke, like all similar stories, the media played out the melodrama according to script: the white hat was the prosecutor, the black hats were the lacrosse players (and the university for not monitoring a rogue program better) and the victim was the stripper. As I have counseled in my book, this blog and to clients, some times, in extreme situations, your only recourse is to work to move the hat. Time and the facts apparently have moved the hat here. Now it is squarely on Nifong’s head–and of course the victim is no longer the victim but is now also wearing a pretty black hat. The boys are now the victim and the media may even play themselves as the white hat here.

The lesson for crisis managers is when you have the black hat on you are in a tough spot. In large part because once the media decides the story it wants to sell, it is very difficult to see that they may have it wrong. My answer is you must tell the story yourself. It’s a difficult situation, but if those responsible for communicating on the university’s and the boys’ behalf had been confident of the boys’ innocense (difficult while under the firm conviction of the media in the early days and weeks) they should have told the story as it is now being told. An over aggressive prosecutor who intentionally ignored evidence contrary to what he wanted to believe. A “victim” who was no victim but a malicious liar. And boys, guilty of putting themselves in a stupid and vulnerable position but who ultimately would be viewed as the victims.

Moving the black hat while under the intense pressure of a story that fits the media story telling mold so well, is very difficult. But in some cases, it must be done. And, when you need to do that, you need a crisis manager of the likes of Eric Dezenhall–combative, aggressive, angry, and righteous. (See my previous post).

Duke University lacrosse–now the prosecution is on defense

This article from the Associated Press about Duke University’s silence in the aftermath of the rape accusations against members of the lacrosse team highlights a critical challenge and conundrum for crisis communicators.

The article certainly reads as if the University’s position of largely remaining silent while the media storm around the students was swirling looks smart and responsible. The basic theme is that the University was intent on not allowing the case to be tried in the media but let the courts decide.

“I don’t believe the issues have ever been Duke’s support of the students,” Burness said. “The issue has been there is a process in our democracy by which questions of this magnitude are addressed. It’s only when you get before a judge or jury that the truth can be determined. You have to have faith in the system, recognizing it can be difficult to do but realizing that’s how system works.”

Early in the case, when scrutiny of the university and the program was at its height, Brodhead was cautious in his statements, saying the case should unfold in the legal system instead of in the media. School administrators said this month that bad publicity was the likely cause of a 20 percent drop in early admission applications.

Burness’ statement that “there is a process in our democracy by which questions of this magnitude are addressed” is really the key. Yes, but, well, there are actually two processes. One is the court of law, the other is the court of public opinion. Wise leaders need to determine early on in a major news story of where their danger really lies. In some cases, the court of law can do more damage to the long term viability of the organization than the court of public opinion–depending in part on how the story is being played out. An example of this is the numerous legal actions against widely accepted and used medications. The billion dollar lawsuits can grind on in the background while the public blithely continues to consume–that even when the media is playing prosecutor to the fullest extent.

But in this case, the lacrosse team and the University itself was on trial from the moment the situation became news. Silence in the face of such accusations is normally interpreted as guilt. As the errors or evils of the prosecution come to light, the University is having to defend itself against those who say they didn’t stand behind the program or the students. The explanation of Mr. Burness, looks, well, weak and defensive.

The proof is in the pudding, of course. As the story points out the University experienced a huge drop in applications for enrollment. This is a result of the court of public opinion at work, not the court of law. And I would guess that if a survey were taken of the most respected universities, Duke would have fallen down that list quite a bit in the aftermath of the lacrosse incident.

So, here’s the conundrum. I can certainly understand and want very much to support the strategy the University pursued and the sentiments expressed about the desire to let the legal system work as an excuse for not being more vocal. The problem is, the evidence in this case shows it doesn’t work. You can’t end the media storm by silence. You can emerge later when the wind is shifting in your direction and pretend you response or lack of it meant something different than it did. And you can’t deny that you lost the battle in the court of public opinion. And you can’t claim that that matters less than winning in the court of law.

Sum total: the silence they now hail as wisdom is far from golden.