3 Simple Steps Rutgers Should Have Taken to Avoid Its Communications Crisis

There are crises formed in a moment and there are crises that form over periods of years. The case of fired Rutgers University Men's basketball coach Mike Rice was more the latter than the former, but it was both.

Rice’s abusive behavior, which lies in no gray area for its heinousness, took place over the course of years. He is a man with serous anger issues, using his profession as an excuse for perpetrating his behavior.

The decision to “rehabilitate” the coach is a moment that the athletic director Tim Pernetti will thoroughly regret now that the video of the coach was released through a very effective news story by ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.” (see also: Video shows Mike Rice's ire)

Usually the problem with crises though is more based on decision making.

The university did not take sufficient steps to protect its student-athletes in the basketball program for years. The Rutgers leadership acted insularly once they were informed about the coach’s chronic abusive behavior. Rutgers also blamed the whistleblower, former assistant coach Eric Murdock, whose contract was not renewed because he coached at a camp outside the university.

So if Murdock was worthy of being eliminated in 2012, how is it that Rice was not? Now that Rice has been terminated, the question must be asked: how can Rice be terminated but Pernetti, the Athletic Director who chose to keep Rice on board, not be terminated?

Furthermore, it is clear that Rutgers had no crisis communications plan in place to deal with this crisis. They deluded themselves into believing that they could handle this matter in-house, within the family. Yet the whistleblower Murdock, who is now suing the university, was surely not going to go away or remain silent for long.

The three simple steps Rutgers needed to make to avoid this calamity, and other organizations should factor in their own public relations and crisis communications planning, include the following:

  1. Fire the coach right away – the university dropped their standards to a remarkable low, even though at least one star member of the basketball team left the university because of Coach Rice’s abusive behavior.
  2. Be inclusive and transparent – include players and students in the process of renewal, and reveal all of the information from the start. It is the information that is not known that draws the attention of sharp investigative reporters such as those at ESPN.
  3. Plan and be prepared for anything – briefings for all staff and for leaders in the state should have been conducted so no one was taken by surprise. Developing fact sheets with background on the case and the proper steps taken by the university, as well as a messaging plan for a proactive release of all of the information should have been planned well in advance, and all communicators should have been prepped and trained so they could be perceived as contrite and trustworthy messengers.

This story in New Jersey, that took years and crucial moments to develop, will continue for some time, as well it should. Only once the university addresses the failed decision making that allowed Rice to continue coaching will the matter begin to be resolved.

More importantly, the university and other organizations will hopefully learn from their failure to properly develop a communications plan to deal with it.

Photo credit: pix11.com

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