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Media and Crisis Management

Duke Lacrosse – Action, But Late

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Duke Lacrosse – Action, But LateCrisis Response

An alleged gang rape of an exotic dancer at a party has tainted the reputation of Duke University and particularly that of its national class lacrosse team that held the party. Any leader has to be asking, “Did Duke do its best to protect its reputation, and what would I do under equally awful circumstances?” And awful they were. Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong publicly said he believed the woman was attacked, the team wasn’t cooperating, and DNA testing was ordered. Stir in white students at an elite university allegedly attacking a black woman, protests, previous brushes with the law by some team members, national news coverage, and the mixture is toxic. (Disclaimer: I have lectured at Duke’s Fuqua MBA school.)

From a crisis management perspective we need to know the timeline. When did Duke learn about it and how fast did it act publicly? Speed saves. If public crisis looms, it is vastly better to reveal it yourself. You can put it in context, express concern, announce investigations, and promise corrective action while informing stakeholders. You can ride the media wave easier and hold a higher moral ground. Conversely, this is hard to do if you let others fire the first shot.

So what was the timeline? Duke says it knew of the attack allegations on day one. Spokesman John Burness told MSNBC that a student affairs representative “immediately” met with team members and urged complete cooperation with police. Burness said the students repeatedly and consistently said there was no sexual activity, consensual or otherwise on the night in question. Contrary to the DA’s contention of stonewalling, Burness relayed the students’ claim they had been in contact with police until an attorney told them to stop talking. One student offered to take a lie detector test.

Burness said small local stories followed. Then, March 23, ten days after the alleged attack, the police issued a statement that the students were not cooperating and needed DNA testing, photographing, etc. March 24, the media eruption began with articles in the Raleigh News & Observer and Duke’s The Chronicle. March 25, a Saturday, Duke’s president strongly condemned the team’s actions while insisting on innocence until proven guilty. The athletics director cancelled the next two games. Duke eventually suspended the season. Subsequent constructive steps included presidential emails to parents and alumni, campus meetings, and media accessibility.

The timing and quality of Duke’s reaction suggest the university was primed but would not act until law enforcement or media coverage compelled it. That’s understandable with no charges filed or certain. I have worked many cases where we did the same: prepared to act but only when circumstances warranted. Sometimes controversy never emerges and you never need to act: thus a rationale for sitting tight like Duke. But this strategy has risks. To wit, many clients and acquaintances emailed me saying they thought Duke was too slow.

I see three reasons: 1) Duke’s waiting for the media or police to make the first move, 2) Duke’s tepid response on the 24th: Burness said the school was monitoring the situation and cooperating, and 3) the lag time between the March 13th incident and the school’s strong March 25th statement which gave a perception of 12 days of foot-dragging.

What if Duke had done what I suggested in the second paragraph above, preemptively announce the allegations and school actions? Admittedly, it would have been bold without any formal charges plus a risk that premature comment could cause unnecessary harm. Nevertheless, given the almost certain firestorm that lay ahead, I would have advocated a first strike. Duke would have been seen as self-correcting. As General George S. Patton once said, “(A) good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.”

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