Penn State, Syracuse Universities Consult With Crisis Managers

PHOTO: In this, Nov. 14, 2011, photo, Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim, left, watches the action with Bernie Fine, an assistant coach, during a college basketball game. Shortly afterward, Syracuse placed Fine on administrative leave.
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A little more than a week ago I walked into the house after my morning run and on my way upstairs, while peeling off my jacket, heard the name "Bernie Fine" and the words "sexual allegations" in the same sentence coming from a newscaster on the bedroom TV. I took the remaining steps two at a time, pushed open the door and asked my wife if the story had anything to do with Syracuse University.

"Yes," she replied. "And it's not good." Syracuse is my alma mater and hers, and I've served on various boards and committees there over the last 19 years. I immediately started thinking about the Penn State scandal and began wondering if this scandal would taint the name of my university and by association diminish some its great accomplishments.

Enter advertising, marketing and public relations' youngest sibling: Crisis Management. Crisis management seeks to limit the damage done when people and organizations find themselves in crisis situations. Attorneys operate by the credo that everyone is innocent until proven guilty and are entitled to defend themselves. Crisis managers lead their clients down a specific path designed to minimize the damage and to position the client to be able to salvage as much as possible and move on. Crisis managers help their clients understand that they must accept or assign blame, solve the crisis, show how they have learned from it and put into effect controls to reduce the risk of a similar situation arising.

Crisis managers are needed in our news-dense world. A crisis can dominate the headlines for weeks and severely damage individuals and institutions.

Many organizations, when faced with a crisis, first try to deny or minimize the situation. Toyota fist denied that some of its cars could accelerate on their own -- even telling consumers to put their car mats in the trunk -- before it admitted fault, recalled certain models and publically apologized. BP oil's then-CEO, Tony Hayward, told reporters that the millions of gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico were "tiny" in relation to the total water volume. He said the gulf was a "Big Ocean." He was finally forced to step down. BP spent hundreds of millions in cleanup and reparations.

In the case of Syracuse University, long-time assistant coach Bernie Fine was accused by two stepbrothers, former ball boys, of sexual molestation. ESPN broke the story in an interview with one of the boys. Head Coach Jim Boeheim immediately defended Fine and made a statement discrediting the boys. After additional information surfaced including a taped conversation between one of the accusers and Fine's wife, Boeheim has continued to support Fine, a friend since his college days, but less energetically.

In that regard, he responded in a similar way Penn State President Graham Spanier had when defending the actions of Tim Curley, Penn State's athletic director, and Gary Schultz, vice president for finance and business who were allegedly informed about a specific incident of child abuse by former Penn State Defensive Coach Jerry Sandusky.

Syracuse, however, has responded more proactively than Penn State did initially. The chancellor is a tiny fireball of a woman named Nancy Cantor. She is hands-on, articulate and at all times in control -- in short, a crisis manager's dream. She released a statement immediately, and as more evidence emerged, fired Fine. She convened and kept in close contact with the Board of Trustees and promised to investigate the accusations.

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