Monday, June 21, 2004

Recruiting Rape - How to Mis-Handle A Campus Crisis

The University of Colorado Football Team Rape story - one of what I deem the most criminally-inept public relations on the part of the University of Colorado - has re-surfaced in the past week.

The University President (a woman, for gosh-darn sakes) testified under oath that she'd heard the foul four-letter insult (the notorious "c-word"), the one that had been hurled at the female place-kicker by a male team-mate - used as a term of endearment ...

She said that in public, where the press could here her - and Ib believe she said it under oath ... and, well, I just presume somebody's gone and shot all the PR people in the entire state of Colorado, because it's damned sure nobody there is listening to any professional PR advice.

I'd originally written what follows (pre-blog) when the story was first public two months ago. I was offended that the coach and I shared a name (though we're not kin), and I was offended by the incredibly inept way the school was handling this PR crisis (I used to be in college PR, and have some firm views on the right way to handle such crises).

Now that it's back in the news, I thought I'd update my original thoughts and put it out here ...


Rape is a crime. There’s nothing ambiguous about rape. And when it occurs on campus, against students, it’s a crime that cannot be tolerated, condoned or overlooked by University officials.

Handling a rape crisis is – or should be – equally unambiguous. But remarkably, that seldom seems to be the case, even for college administrator who clearly ought to know better.

It wasn’t all that long ago that American colleges were deemed to stand “in loco parentis” for their students. That’s a fancy Latin legal term which means, quite simply, that the college was supposed to assume parental-like responsibility for the students – bluntly, the students were treated as if they were the college’s children.

This all changed during the Vietnam war, when students facing the draft – and others who’d just come home from the war – won their emancipation from this tight, legally-mandated University oversight. However, the basic principle – that colleges have some responsibility for their students’ safety, as well as for the actions of students who are acting under the auspices of the college – remains.

Fast-forward a generation. A religiously inclined high school student – a candidate for a football scholarship – blew the whistle on the University of Colorado’s use of prostitutes, strip-club visits and wild parties as part of their student-athlete recruiting program. This report triggered an outpouring of other charges – including the charge of rape, made by woman students against student athletes on the University’s football team.

Suddenly, the University of Colorado had a huge, hydra-headed public relations crisis – and like so many other executives in the public and private sectors, the University’s leadership performed a remarkable deer-in-the-headlight performance. That performance did nothing to resolve their PR crisis – in fact, their actions compounded what was already a dismal situation. It got so bad that the University’s mis-handled rape crisis was even mocked in Doonesbury, made fun of on Leno and Letterman, and it made the University the subject of outrage, scrutiny and scorn.

As if this rape crisis wasn’t bad enough, the head football coach – an unfortunately-named gentleman (who is absolutely no relation to this author) – made an intemperate on-camera press statement about one of the alleged rape victims, who was a member of the football team at the time of her rape (or alleged rape, to satisfy any lawyers in the audience).

He said, in effect, that she was a lousy football player whose presence on the team was resented by the guys on the team – in part because of her poor performance as a player. Because she was resented – and by the way, because she was not very good at playing football – the coach made it seem that this alleged rape victim was therefore somehow “asking for it,” especially from the other football players. Those were not his exact words, but that was the impression the coach created with the media, and with the public.

This, of course, created a media firestorm. Attempting to stanch the flow of blood, the University took a series of remarkably lame actions, concluding with putting the coach on leave-with-full-pay while they “investigated” a situation that had been videotaped, and was therefore fairly obvious – even to college administrators. Then, two months later, they reinstated him without penalty - in fact, nobody in authority is being punished, sanctioned or even spoken to harshly - but the University promised to "do better" in the future. Or something like that.

Amazingly, the Administration seemed surprised that their “decisive” actions didn’t do anything to stop the bleeding. So the University President, a woman, came forward and swore that she'd heard one of the foul insults hurled at this woman student on the team (that notorious "c-word) used as a word of endearment. Uh, yeah. Right.

Clearly, the University either had no competent public relations counsel (which I can't believe) – or, more likely, the Administration just wasn’t listening to the PR advice they were getting.

I’m guessing that the college administrators did meet with their senior PR counsel, and that in doing so, they got a full measure of competent advice. I imagine that this meeting – which would have taken place shortly after the Administration first put that coach on paid administrative leave (and were therefore surprised when this “bold action” didn’t make the problem go away) – went something like this:

College President: “This is a PR nightmare, Jack. What can we do?”

Jack Flack: “First, tell me what happened. What really happened.”

College President: “It started when this religious fanatic …”

Jack Flack: “A religious fanatic? Who?”

College President: “This, uh, recruit – a high school student athlete. He objected to some – and I want to make this clear – strictly unofficial recruiting practices. Practices that we knew nothing about. Absolutely nothing.”

Jack Flack: “You knew nothing about University athletes taking high school students to strip clubs, wild parties, or setting them up with prostitutes? You didn’t hear a word about this? Not a hint? Not even a rumor? Nothing? Nada?”

College President: “Well, no, at least nothing official. Nothing – besides, Jack, doesn’t everybody do it? I mean, look. We never condoned any official violations – certainly nothing like this. Our Alumni strongly support the football program – they often help with our team’s recruiting efforts. And of course, the NCAA has its own rules governing recruiting …”

Jack Flack: “You didn’t want to know about what might be going on, did you?”

College President: “We have never had never any kind of recruiting problems here at the University, Jack. Nobody had every complained. Not once.”

Jack Flack: “I’m sure you’re correct. High school aged male student athletes seldom complain about being treated to strip shows or prostitutes or wild parties – you’re right about that. Until this one high school student athlete, who apparently has strong religious convictions, complained. To the media. Then what?”

College President: “Well, we made it clear that any unauthorized recruiting violations which might have occurred were strictly unofficial – and besides, those strip club parties were all off-campus. What goes on off campus isn’t really our responsibility, is it?”

Jack Flack: “OK, you told the media that whatever might have happened was unofficial and off campus. So what happened next?”

College President: “Once this story broke, some women – women students – came forward with unsubstantiated claims about having been raped. They claimed that they were sexually assaulted by football players, or by recruits, or by people supposedly related to our athletic program. Some of these claims were four or five years old.”

Jack Flack: “So then you were faced with claims of rapes perpetrated against students by student athletes. What did you do about that?”

College President: “Why, we condemned it, of course. Rape is wrong, and we said so.”

Jack Flack: “You came out four-square against rape? Very courageous.”

College President: “Why thank you, Jack – we certainly thought so, too. After that, everything should have been just fine …”

Jack Flack: “Just fine for who?”

College President: “Why, for the University, of course. And everything would have worked out, too, if that coach hadn’t shot his mouth off to the press.”

Jack Flack: “Oh? What did he say?”

College President: “He made some unflattering observations about one of the women students claiming to have been raped by one or more members of the football team – she’d been a place-kicker and part of the team at the time of the alleged rape. The coach said she had been a divisive influence on the team, and that she wasn’t a very good football player, either. Can you imagine? And he said all of that during an on-camera interview. Almost immediately, feminist groups from all over made it sound like he was claiming that the young woman had asked for it, or that she somehow deserved it.”

Jack Flack: “And that was a problem?”

College President: “Absolutely! By the time that young woman surfaced, we were all more than ready to just move on. But after what the coach said, the press just wouldn’t leave the story alone.”

Jack Flack: “That’s not good, is it? So what did you do to the coach?”

College President: “We immediately took decisive action, Jack. We put him on administrative leave – paid leave, of course - at least until this blows over. I mean, at least until we can get to the bottom of this painful and troubling situation.”

Jack Flack: “You put him on administrative leave, with full pay, is that correct?”

College President: “Of course. What else were we supposed to do, Jack?”

Jack Flack: “This man – this coach – is an executive employee of the University. As such, he was responsible for the actions of his student athletes. He permitted this young woman to be a place-kicker on his team …"

College President: But he didn’t recruit her – she’d been on the team when the coach came to the University."

Jack Flack: “So she wasn’t his responsibility?"

College President: “Well, no, but – well, she wasn’t one of his student athletes.”

Jack Flack: “I’m not sure other people would agree with you. The coach allowed her to remain on the team, and that made him responsible for her welfare, as well as for the welfare – and actions – of other team members, including those who have been accused of having raped her. As an official of the University, this coach also had a primary responsibility to set an example. His statement, which seems to condone rape of a student he clearly didn’t welcome on his team, is clearly not the example you want your officials to set. Is it?”

College President: “Well, when you put it like that, I guess it wasn’t the best possible example for a University official to set. Perhaps our actions didn’t make this as clear as we might want it to be. So what should we have done?”

Jack Flack: “You should have immediately suspended him – without pay – and said something like this to the press:

“As a University official, our coach had a positive responsibility to not only set an appropriate example, but to protect his student athletes – and high school student athlete recruits visiting our school – from criminal assault. He must also never, ever seem to condone criminal actions, especially those allegedly committed by or against student athletes or student recruits. This man’s press statement was clearly unacceptable, and as a result of his statement, we are putting him on unpaid leave until such time as we can legally terminate his services. As an employee of this University, the coach has certain rights, and we will scrupulously respect all of those rights. But this University has no place for senior employees who do not understand their responsibilities to their students, to the citizens of Colorado, and to the laws that govern all of us.”

College President: “Can we do that?”

Jack Flack: “Absolutely. You’ll want to make sure your attorney vets the actual termination process, but as long as you protect an employee’s rights, you have the right to terminate any employee for cause. And as long as criminal charges are alleged, you have the responsibility t
o ensure that all University employees – especially senior officials – respect the rights of victims, as well as those who are accused of crimes not yet proved. Your University tried hard to sweep these charges under the rug; when that became impossible, your corrective actions were – at least from a PR perspective – too little, too late.”

College President: “So what do we do now?”

Jack Flack: “You need to give more than lip service to the idea that University officials have a positive obligation to protect students and student recruits from criminal activity. You have to actively and aggressively cooperate with off-campus police and prosecutors. You need to protect the potential victims – while making sure that the accused also have their rights protected …”

College President: “That’s a tough balancing act.”

Jack Flack: “Yes it is – and it’s been made much tougher by your actions to date. But it is because of those very in-actions of yours that you now need to go the extra mile. Beyond what I’ve already outlined, you also need to reach out to student groups, the alumni association – and to those who advocate for the victims. Beyond that, you need to enact – and enforce – policies that will make sure this never happens again.”

College President: “And this will make the problem go away? This will rehabilitate our image?”

Jack Flack: “Eventually, but not immediately. If you do everything right – if you aggressively enforce real, meaningful standards – this problem will start to go away in about five years.”

College President: “Start to go away? Five years? Why so long?”

Jack Flack: “When the last freshman now on campus has graduated, the collective memory of your betrayal of your responsibility …”

College President: “Betrayal? Jack, isn’t that a bit harsh?”

Jack Flack: “No, and as long as you continue to think that it’s too harsh, you’re not going to turn this situation around. It will take five years for the last student now on campus to have graduated. And it will take five years for the last of today’s high school freshman to have already selected the college they’re going to – before this problem will really begin to fade. Imagine that you’re the parent of a high school athlete – would you want your son to come to the University to be recruited?"

College President: “No – not when you put it that way."

Jack Flack: “Well picture this. You’re the parent of a high school-aged daughter. Would you want her to come to the University? To an institution who thinks that rape is something to be swept under the rug?”

College President: “No, I don’t guess so. But Jack – isn’t there some other way? Some faster way to turn this around? What you’re prescribing seems like mighty harsh medicine. What would happen if we just let this die down?”

Jack Flack: “Do you remember the Navy’s Tailhook scandal?”

College President: “Of course. Everybody remembers the Tailhook scandal. But Jack, that was years ago …"

Jack Flack: “Tailhook was a dozen years ago. That was also an unofficial activity. It also took place “off-campus.” And it didn’t even involve students, or people presumably responsible for protecting children under their care. They were all consenting adults, attending an adult-only party at a casino hotel in Las Vegas. Sin City, USA. Yet everybody still remembers the Tailhook scandal. The Navy never effectively faced that crisis, and a dozen years later the stain of that scandal still hasn’t gone away. Do you want that to happen to the University? Or do you want to take your medicine, now, and let the healing start?”


Initially, I wrote: "Only time will tell if the University’s leaders were listening when they got this kind of sage, savvy PR advice. In this case, while the right words are critical – and the wrong words, as the coach found out, can be devastating – actions still speak much louder than words."

What's clear, now, is that nobody in power was listening - least of all the University President. Her actions - her words - have made a bad problem much worse. It will be interesting to see if the University's alumni will support her, or the football program. I understand the coach had a winning record recently - but it remains to be seen if he'll be able to recruit quality student athletes ... or if parents will even consider letting their sons and daughters attend the University of Colorado.

There are serious PR lessons to be learned here - beyond not shooting your mouth off - about what a University or college (or similar organization) should do when faced with a crime-related crisis (especially if that crime is rape).

When a crime-related crisis like this comes up, sage PR advice can be summarized in a few simple rules:

1. If a crime or scandal is alleged, take it as seriously as if the victim was your son or daughter, wife or husband, father or mother.

2. Accept responsibility, and take meaningful actions to make amends

3. Move immediately to protect the rights of the victims – and of those who are alleged to have been the criminals – but do nothing that smacks of cover-up or special treatment for athletes or other prominent individuals

4. Ensure that all officials either speak from an approved script, or remain silent

5. Take decisive action at once – don’t settle for lip service or symbolic gestures – make real changes

6. Expect the problem to get worse before it gets better, and expect the reverberations to be heard for years

7. Get professional public relations crisis counsel – and listen to the experts

This list of suggested actions isn’t intended to be a cookbook – it’s not even a road-map – but these broad guidelines will help with a college executive's initial actions and statements - at least until they can bring in effective professional support.

Some crimes linger in the memory, and only really effective public relations can help erase that memory, and replace it with something more positive.

About Ned Barnett:

Ned Barnett, the owner of Barnett Marketing Communications (, is a 32-year veteran of high-stakes crisis-management public relations, and is a frequent “source” for print and broadcast journalists. Barnett has advised many corporate and personal clients on effective crisis relations – often stopping a crisis in its tracks, even before it gets started.

Barnett has taught PR at two state universities, and has written nine published books on public relations, marketing and advertising. He’s earned PRSA’s coveted Silver Anvil, two ADDYs and four consecutive MacEacherns; in 1978, he was the youngest (to that time) person to earn accreditation from PRSA, and in 1984, he became the first person to earn a Fellowship in PR from the American Hospital Association. But mostly, Barnett provides PR counsel to a range of corporations, authors and advocacy groups.