Okay, class, attention please! Our crisis management lesson today is, “Fix the problem. When did you learn about it and what did you do about it?” Yes, we’ve discussed this before but it appears leaders struggle to learn it. Consider Rutgers University’s upheaval for not acting more strongly last year against an outrageous coach.
Basketball coach Mike Rice physically struck practicing players and berated them with gay-hate speech while being secretly videotaped. And university officials saw that tape. In spite of that damning evidence, the university chose to rehab Rice with a fine, suspension, and anger management late last year. An astonishing response given a) his anti-gay behavior followed a gay student’s suicide, and b) Penn State had demonstrated what happens to schools that fail to act decisively to stop serious abuse..
So, let’s add a corollary to Fix the Problem. “Does the punishment fit the “’“crime?’” I think most who saw the now-viral tape would say no. Even forced-out Athletic Director Tim Pernetti admitted in his resignation letter that his first instinct was to fire Rice immediately. Now another university’s reputation is damaged, several officials are gone, and the president has apologized to everyone but the groundskeepers while blaming it on a failure of process.
It’s easy to condemn Rutgers with plenty of hindsight plus video of Rice on the rampage. And yes, class, you’re wise to ask, “Wouldn’t a quick dismissal of the coach have exposed the university to the dangers of rushing to judgment?” (How do you spell Duke Lacrosse?)
But that’s why crisis management is a team sport. Mixing metaphors here, put your best minds in a pot, stir in a few crisis principles, add a dash of good judgment, and cook a satisfying solution. Oh, wait. Rutgers DID have a team! Despite the AD’s sound gut reaction, a host of inside and outside lawyers and HR pros preferred to repair rather than dismiss Rice.
Did they seriously contemplate that video of out-of-control Rice? Did they ask what the perception of school standards would be it became public? Did they ask if they were willing to tolerate the almost-certain explosive reaction? The president’s recent comments suggest no. In fact he said he wished HE had seen the tape earlier (though he knew of its existence) and strongly suggested he would not have allowed the coach to stay had he viewed it last year.
Now, class, to conclude this oft-delivered lesson let me repeat this factoid that underscores the need to “Fix the Problem.” Research reveals that most crises are self-inflicted. About two-thirds smolder before blowing up. In short, leaders shoot themselves in the foot.
“Rick, why must you keep giving this lecture? There can’t possibly be that many dumb executives.”
Well, I suppose we imperfect humans tend to deny or rationalize problems or perhaps fear taking bold action to avoid looking stupid. We simply must form crisis management teams with members unafraid to speak truth to power and to themselves. Crisis guru Jim Lukaszewski once told me, “Our clients keep forgetting to do what we tell them. Keeps us in business.”