"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Marquette's PR Nightmare

It seems like a lifetime ago, but I used to work in television news here in Milwaukee. I was a huge fan of Alderman Michael McGee, not because I agreed with him, but because every time he stepped in front of a microphone, he gave us a story. McGee was constantly making controversial, borderline racist, or simply stupid comments that made him a newsman's dream. Then he was arrested for racketeering and sent to prison, which was great for his constituents but disappointing for the media.

The reason I mention this is because over the past few months, Marquette's handling of the October sexual harassment/assault case has felt like this. Every time the University has proverbially gotten in front of a microphone, they've kept the story alive and ended up with more egg on their face. The admission of a history of law-breaking, the resignation of Cottingham being directly linked to the incident, and Buzz being put into an interview about the topic while being handcuffed as to what he could say.

At the same time, Marquette was being lambasted in the media by District Attorney John Chisholm, the Chicago Tribune, and Journal-Sentinel writer Michael Hunt. I don't intend this article to kick Marquette while they are down. The situation was handled poorly, I don't think even Marquette would deny that right now. But there are lessons to be learned here, both in terms of the past and the future.

Marquette's error was not getting out in front of the story. Here's how they could have better handled it:

  • Come out with a statement in March when the story was first breaking online announcing that DPS made a thorough investigation but that it has now been forwarded to MPD and all future inquiries should go there.
  • If the policy needed to be revised, so be it, but do it under the auspices of helping students rather than admitting a history of law-breaking, especially as it doesn't seem to be illegal to not report a crime you don't believe happened.
  • Ask Cottingham to stay around until the end of the year so he can assist in the search for a replacement and to distance his departure from the incident.
  • Don't have anyone speak on the incident if they aren't adding to the discussion.
  • When criticism comes, weather the storm. Cottingham's resignation in light of the Tribune article and Buzz's interview right after the Hunt editorial only led to further criticism.
Going forward, two things have become evident. First, Marquette needs to improve their ability to manage crises. Whether they create an internal department to handle situations like this or hire an outside public relations firm, Marquette can't simply get by with good intentions because in the age of a 24/7 news cycle, their intentions will be twisted and interpreted in a way that makes for the best (read: worst) headline.

Second, Marquette needs to conduct a thorough nationwide search for Cottingham's replacement. With the media scrutiny major programs are under, negative publicity will come again. In addition, conference realignment, television contracts, and growth of the Marquette brand are all things that have to be considered in the coming years. The ideal candidate should have experience in PR, law, media, and sports. It won't be an easy process, and it shouldn't be a quick one. That doesn't mean the hire can't ultimately be someone with Marquette ties, or even in-house, but the impression given has to be that there is a new sheriff in town.


Nathan said...

i still give this whole thing a big yawn....when does the season start?

Eric Barrett said...

Duke lacrosse.