Luck of the Irish? Manti Te’o Creates PR Crisis For Notre Dame

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.

Manti Te'o

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?

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3 Responses to Luck of the Irish? Manti Te’o Creates PR Crisis For Notre Dame

  1. Amy Villarreal says:

    While this story has since become boring, I think the PR team at Notre Dame did the best they could with what they were given. I didn’t interpret the initial response to the situation as being on the defensive. Rather, I believe the PR team commented on the information as they had received it, which as it turns out was correct from the beginning. Where they went from there, I agree, had flaws.

    One of the major lessons we learned from the guest speaker Ray Artigue was that when approaching any situation, always do the research first. I don’t know whether the Notre Dame PR department thought the responsibility wasn’t theirs to take on, but they needed to understand one of their students is a major stakeholder for the University and his image directly reflects the school’s. This said, they should have immediately started a full-fledged crisis communications plan.

    Instead, they left Teo’s story to be tossed around and poorly reported until the whole of the matter was a big, confusing mess. I think if the PR team had done more, the story wouldn’t have led to the negative attitudes toward Teo and the school. All of the confusion and the problems could have been avoided.

  2. Nicole Lavella says:

    I’m glad you brought this up, Kayla. As I watched this crazy ordeal unfold via Twitter (and then ESPN), I was also shocked by the University of Notre Dame’s initial response. Notre Dame not only seemed unnecessarily defensive, but also dismissive —- as if it was trying to brush the issue under the rug before it became an actual problem. Personally, I wasn’t even skeptical of the story until the school claimed it was all a giant hoax (and then left us with little to no additional information). The quickly released statement followed by Notre Dame’s lack of open support for its player had “panic” written all over it, making the audience —-including myself -— question both the university’s innocence and Te’o’s. For a school steeped in legend and that has been around since 1842, I would expect a much better crisis communication plan.

    Nonetheless, it’ll be interesting to see how this story plays out. Though the Katie Couric interview you posted helped the scandal die down for now, I don’t think its damage is quite done. Te’o was essentially a guaranteed top-five NFL draft pick prior to the emergence of this story. I wonder how many teams are now reconsidering his value? There’s no doubt that Te’o is a good football player; the star linebacker was nominated for a Heisman, after all. But as Te’o’s personal brand continues to disintegrate, I can’t help but think his future paycheck is too.

  3. Lita Patrick says:

    After the Manti Te’o’s scandal started to unravel in the public eye, I believe Notre Dame should have done a more thorough search into the matter before releasing a statement backing the football player. With so many inconsistent claims by Te’o, a simple call to the hospital where his alleged girlfriend passed away could have cleared some of the air. Also, with lack of evidence in most of Te’o’s stories and his PR representatives suggesting he was the victim of an online hoax by others, inconsistencies and lack of evidence to prove the claims continued. Now that Notre Dame did decide to stick behind their star player, I believe their biggest goal is to rebuild the school’s credibility among the public.

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