What started as public relations gold has quickly turned into a spiraling crisis for the University of Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish headed into the championship season with a story and an athlete incomparable to other contenders. The team’s star linebacker, Manti Te’o, offered a backstory full of triumph and tribulation. He suffered the loss of both his beloved grandmother and long-distance girlfriend, yet garnered a tremendous amount of inner strength with which he led the team to the BCS championship game.
Over the course of the season, the story of Te’o’s unwavering strength brought a wealth of positive media to both the university and Te’o himself. But that changed when sports blog, Deadspin, broke a story that Te’o’s girlfriend, and her death, were all part of an elaborate hoax. Leaving the university with two choices: stand by their star linebacker or watch from the sidelines as the story, and its details, unfolded.
It was in those crucial moments that the university’s PR team made its first fumble.
The university released a statement, without any indication of a thorough investigation, or any statement addressing the validity of the claims by the athlete himself. Immediately, Notre Dame went on the defensive, positioning Te’o as the victim of this unimaginable ploy.
“On Dec. 26, Notre Dame coaches were informed by Manti Te’o and his parents that Manti had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia. The University immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax. While the proper authorities will continue to investigate this troubling matter, this appears to be, at a minimum, a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators.”
As the story developed so did the flaws, leading everyone and anyone who was paying attention to consider that Te’o was more involved than he originally claimed.
It seemed at that point that the PR team for Notre Dame had left Te’o to fight his own battles without first doing the leg-work that any public relations professionals knows would be necessary in this sort of situation.
From what is known externally, there was no attempt by the PR team to contact the hospital where his supposed girlfriend had been treated nor had the university’s team ever questioned Te’o on the details of the relationship.
Following the release of the hoax, Notre Dame contracted out an investigation on the truth of the claims. The results were handed over to Te’o and his family, leaving the decision to go public in the hands of the linebacker and his family — who arguably have a minimal grasp on what the right move would be in the world of proper PR.
The once coy, naive and trusting Te’o then thrust himself into the national spotlight with interviews on ESPN and with Katie Couric on her new talk show, Katie.
By this time, the PR team finally seemed to have its act together.
The Fighting Irish’s star not only appeared snarky and self-assured when interviewed by some of journalism’s best, but he came prepared (and for ESPN was even accompanied by his own PR rep). A coached Te’o provided a plethora of rehearsed replies to the questions he had been neglecting and it seemed he was finally starting to emerge from the mess he and Notre Dame’s PR team had created.
Though the scandal has since subsided, it truly seems that Notre Dame’s PR team had the fundamentals of crisis communications completely backwards from the outset.
As a well-regarded university what will this scandal do to Notre Dame’s and Manti Te’o’s reputation? Did they take the right course of action or could the situation have been mitigated with a different approach?