If you are a student in Communications or PR at a Big Ten school, you might want consider transfer, because its member schools have recently tended to write colorful Harvard Business school case studies to illustrate exactly how horribly PR crises can be handled. And, now that we’re some 8 years post-Jim Tressel scandal, I’m embarrassed, but also dismayed, to here state that, among those schools which have had serious PR crises — PSU, OSU, MSU, Rutgers, and Maryland –Penn State has done it best. Yes, Penn State. Not that they’ve done it well; just the best of a bad lot. And, now that I think of it, that list of five schools should be expanded to six, because we need to add Ohio State in twice (Tressel scandal in 2010 – ’11; then again with Meyer in ’18)
Each of these schools have violated the PR’s Cardinal Rule #1, which is ‘do not, under any circumstances, let a story get ‘legs.’ If the story becomes a story which repeatedly, over days or months, pops up on our screens, then you have failed.
It’s actually too early to decide who has recently won this race to the bottom: both Maryland and OSU are sprinting to get more deeply buried in the muck. Maryland has still not gotten a report from the second investigative team it has hired (after they hired a completely put-up-job guy from some safety backwater.) But OSU is still a contender in this upside-down race, having gotten a slick, high-brow report from former SEC figurehead, enforcement-lackey Mary Jo White, who had, apparently, one too many meetings with the OSU Board’s subcommittee, and bought into their need to bury facts and cover tracks.
Short sum: White struck out, because she can’t count to nine. She decided that, even though Urban Meyer repeated the same lie (that he hadn’t known of Z. Smith’s ’15 transgressions) nine times, those Meyer lies could, according to White, only have been inadvertent. White once again proves: the higher your education and prestige, the goofier the conclusions you can deliver to a credulous public.
White also struck out because she was unable to conclude that both AD Smith and Meyer had violated explicit provisions in their contracts of employment, which had mandated that they report all instances of domestic violence concerning their employees — whether or not those instances involved arrest or report to the police. Neither performed according to contract. But Mary Jo, like some breathless candidate for OSU Homecoming Queen, certainly could not have been bothered to emphasize such simple notions of employee contract duty, which might have affected her candidacy for the crown she so avidly coveted.
And then she came up with the great cover: Urban Meyer did not intend to lie to us all, nine times. From whence did she divine this highly subjective notion? It is not at all clear, because there are no empirical facts to support that conclusion. But if you are a former SEC head, who presided over that body’s ready willingness to endorse any sort of corporate excuse, it is quite easy to entertain this sort of resolution of what are red-line contractual violations by Urban Meyer.
White’s failure here has two ramifications: 1) on a matter of such major import, any other employee would have been immediately fired; 2) this is AD Gene Smith’s second time traveling down this ‘failure to report’ terrain. He’d masterminded the last one, and screwed it up to a fare-thee-well. Jim Tressel’s long deceit was Gene Smith’s; when Smith got the mid-December 2010 letter from the U.S. attorney, he failed to review Tressel’s emails. It was only a month later, when some members of the athletic department staff independently happened to be engaged in reviewing other documents, that they discovered that Tressel had scammed and boldly lied-to millions of people for months.
But here’s the central point: Smith never inadvertently screwed up, either in ’10 or ’18. Meyer didn’t unintentionally lie. They both acted with precision, to bury facts and cover tracks. Meyer knew he was lying to the press. (Text the night before: “I won’t tell the media.) Smith and Meyer applied what has been the The De Facto Rule of the Gene Smith Administration: what has a low likelihood of later being found out can, and must, be buried. Bury the facts, and cover the tracks.
But more will be found out. Gene Smith’s emails were never searched by Mary Jo White, even though his state of knowledge was a central issue, just as it had been with the Tressel scandal. And Mary Jo White threw up her hands and, apparently, decided — contrary to all current wisdom — that she could not, or would not, track down the emails deleted by Urban Meyer, or search the long Gene White email-trail. White did not want to know: she wanted to bury the facts, and cover the tracks.
But more is coming. I know of FOIA requests to get Gene Smith’s long email trail. It will come out. And Meyer’s sudden delete of all emails, on July 31, 2018, made disappear all emails which were older than a year, but anyone who has dealt with serious matters knows that such deletions are mere road-bump, on the forensic road to discover pertinent facts. Meyer’s text will surface. And Mary Jo just might not be an OSU Homecoming Queen, after they do. Until then, Gene Smith: bury the facts, and cover the tracks.