Tigers by the Tail

May 31, 2009 at 6:18 am Leave a comment

The Commercial Appeal reports that the University of Memphis basketball team is facing a PR crisis: an NCAA investigation into whether former point guard Derrick Rose falsified his SAT. If the NCAA rules against Rose, the Tigers could be stripped of their 38 wins from the 2007-2008 regular and post season.

Like so many crises, this one comes in two parts: the incident itself (alleged) and the atrocious handling of the matter (incontestable). Once the story broke, coaches, administrators and spokespeople were either confused, mute or indignant, proof there was no crisis communications preparation. And the school had time to prepare. The NCAA sent notice of the investigation in January. The school had been keeping it quiet.

The irony, as the Commercial Appeal points out, is that the University of Memphis had a crisis communications analysis in hand, compiled at a cost of $25,000 by Ketchum, one of the world’s largest public relations firms. The report was commissioned in 2005 after the Tigers were caught flatfooted during their last big PR crisis: a domestic assault charge against basketball player Jeremy Hunt. The University took two weeks to address the charge publicly and allowed Hunt to play in the meantime. Ketchum criticized the school’s slowness to speak out and conflicted messaging regarding the Hunt case–the same bad plays called during the Rose investigation.

The Tigers have done what I’ve seen far too many companies and institutions do: pay for an expensive, authoritative communications plan only to stuff it in a drawer. Explaining the school’s silence on the Rose investigation, the University of Memphis’ VP of Communications, Bob Eoff, called the notice a “private letter.” The Commercial Appeal says it is a public document, hence its ability to request and disclose it.

Time to review the PR outrages:

Communications VP Eoff has blamed the media for creating a “firestorm” he can’t “manage.” He has also said that the NCAA gave no direction on addressing the public. Note to all, do not hire a spokesperson to whine and fingerpoint. You already have a CEO for that.

The University of Memphis and its athletic department are no strangers to controversy after the Jeremy Hunt case; therefore, they can’t use the “nothing-like-this-ever-happened-to-us” defense. (That line never works anyway.)

The $25,000 check to Ketchum doesn’t represent a mere zero in ROI; it constitutes a negative as this wasted expenditure is hurting the school’s image further.

If the University of Memphis wanted to consult Ketchum anew, the closest office is in Atlanta, over 300 miles away. Meanwhile, approximately 200 yards north of the school’s Administration Building is the Edward J. Meeman Journalism Building. Inside are plenty of instructors and bright students who could have advised the school and helped prevent this abject PR collapse. I don’t know any U of M faculty or students; I’m just making a good guess.

Now even if Rose is declared innocent, the school is still guilty of cover-up, arrogance and ineptitude. If Rose is found in violation, the University of Memphis will have already lost far more than 38 recorded victories.

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Entry filed under: Crisis Communications, Leadership, Public Relations. Tags: , , , , .

Remembering Real Estate Maximum Bob

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