WASHINGTON, April 5, 2013 — Four months ago Rutgers announced they would be joining the Big Ten Conference, a tremdous coup for The State University of New Jersey. Four days ago, Athletic Director Tim Pernetti was celebrated for being the man that made all of it possible. Four days is an enternity in the 24-hour news cycle.
ESPN’s Outside The Lines aired Tuesday practice tape of Mike Rice, then head basketball coach at Rutgers, verbally and physically abusing players. Rice kicked, pushed players and addressed them with homophobic slurs. Pernetti, reviewed the same tape last November and suspended Rice for three games and fined him $50,000. Pernetti defended the decision, for rehabilitation over termination, by saying there “wasn’t a line outside my door” in reference to no complaints being recieved from players.
The Mike Rice video, not surpisingly, went viral. The story trascneded sports and began airing on all news media. Quickly there was a public outcry for the firing of Rice, an outcry that included the highly popular New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. In less than 24 hours, there was no other option than for Pernetti to fire Rice. Once Rice was fired people directed their outrage toward Pernetti. Now that Pernetti has resigned, the community and media have already turned their attention to Robert Barchi, President of Rutgers University. It’s a valid yet insatiable blood lust.
There are two very important media relations lessons that can be learned from the handling of this situation. There were two opportunities for Pernetti to still be employed today.
The best defense is a good offense.
First and most obvious would have been firing Rice last November. Assumptions can be made that Pernetti didn’t want to rock the boat, make a potential scandal known while attempting to secure admission in to the Big Ten. There is no debate that Rice’s actions went above and beyond the normal yelling and anger seen by many head coaches during practices. By no means is there any similarity to the horrific circumstances that occurred at Penn State. Yet, similar media lessons can be learned from both.
There is no reason or justification to attempt to hide information from the media. They will find it and when they do more damage will be done. Pernetti could have saved face by firing Rice then and using the video as justification. He didn’t. Instead he chose to protect Rutgers from negative press, attempt to rehabilitate his coach and not negatively impact their future recruiting.
Admit to mistakes. Don’t make excuses.
By defending Rice on Tuesday in an ESPN interview, Pernetti inserted himself on the wrong side of a public media story. Noble that he would defend Rutgers and the first basketball coach he hired but the wrong choice. Some may say he had to do so in order to defend his previous decision in November. That’s a great point. Still, there were better ways to make that defense than pointing to the fact that players didn’t complain. A remark that led to ESPN’s Jay Bilas calling for his job. Once the topic is out in the media, a topic of conversation, a public figure like Pernetti has little chance of retaining their position.
It’s a clear lesson that hopefully all will remember in media relations. Get in front of the story and stay in front. Don’t make the easy choice, make the right choice.
Jeff Barrett is a recognized leader in public relations, experiential marketing and social media. Co-Founder of Status Creative, 2011 PRNewswire Award Winner for “Best Use of Video In Social Media” and record holder for Most Strikeouts in Tee-Ball.
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