I went on a football recruiting trip to the University of Michigan in 1998. We left late on a Friday night after our high school game ended and my mom drove a few of my friends and me through the night from Ames, Iowa to Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Michigan wasn't recruiting me that Saturday afternoon; they were after my friend, who was the 1998 High School Gatorade Football Player of the Year in Iowa. He ended up accepting a full-ride to play at the University of Iowa while I played non-scholarship Division III football at Wheaton College in the west suburbs of Chicago.
Though raised in Iowa, I have always been a Michigan fan. My mother and uncles grew up near the "Big House" selling apples and parking cars, and went on to attend Pioneer High School, kitty-corner to the stadium. My grandpa moved to Ann Arbor after fighting in World War II and worked for Michigan Bell for nearly 35 years where he supported the University of Michigan's campus communications. At almost 90-years-old, he remembers the day President Gerald Ford was visiting campus and called him in to set up his personal communications like it was yesterday.
My passion for "Block M" tradition has manifested itself in a voracious appetite for all things Michigan. I read mgoblog.com religiously, follow Scout.com's Allen Trieu and Sam Webb closely and watch Inside Michigan Football and the team's press conferences on mgovideo.com. I was actually starting to feel guilty about the amount of time I was spending on following Michigan-related news, until the program's recent debacle.
The meltdown at Michigan following back-to-back home losses and the severe mishandling of concussed quarterback Shane Morris left the realm of my "passion" and entered the world of "profession." I may have a love for football, but my career is in communications. Watching the aftermath of the decisions of Michigan's leadership following the incident during the Minnesota game has been a case study in what not to do in a communications crisis, and I'm taking notes. Unfortunately for Michigan Football, Shane Morris' concussed head is not the only thing that may experience long-term damage.
During my four years at Wheaton College, we never faced a crisis of this scale. Of course, we played in front of "thousands" instead of "hundreds of thousands," our coaches were paid "tens of thousands" instead of "millions," and our program was a "cost center" instead of a "revenue generator."
College football has become big business, with Michigan's program alone generating more than $80 million a year in revenue. If it had a public valuation and was 'for sale,' the price tag would be significantly higher. Corporations this size and much smaller understand the importance of communications and public relations: protecting their brands. However, at the University of Michigan, this doesn't seem to be the case. What's at stake is more than the loss of a few jobs -- it's a fan base, future recruits, ticket sales, and hefty alumni donations. What has transpired since the Minnesota game has all the trademarks of a full-blown communications crisis, and to put it lightly, it hasn't been handled well.
Any communications consultant with crisis experience will tell you that the overarching goal is: kill the news. To achieve this objective, most consultants follow a multi-step process, which can be summarized in the following three steps: first, acknowledge that there is a problem to buy time to collect all the facts; second, sincerely apologize for any wrong doing and third, layout a game plan to fix the issue.
When this is done correctly, the brand is restored and deeper trust is forged between the 'consumer' and the 'company.' In the University of Michigan's case, step one never happened and step two and three happened too late.
What evolved was a boilerplate, human-less response that was probably drafted by a lawyer and released after the Minnesota game in the name of Michigan Football's Head Coach, Brady Hoke. Having very little effect, the following Monday morning, the story mutated from the Michigan fan base to millions of mothers and fathers throughout the U.S., when it was broadcast into their homes via Good Morning America. What started out as a crisis on the field, involving multiple lost helmets, had turned into a full-blown crisis involving loss of brand and reputation.
The fire had an opportunity to be contained during a 'Rutgers Week Monday Presser,' but was doused with gasoline when Coach Hoke copped out by saying, "I don't make decisions on who plays." This specific comment has been discussed at length over the past few weeks by analysts and broadcasters on ESPN and the Big Ten Network, many of whom are well-respected former players and coaches.
During a crisis, these types of messages, true or not, keep the story alive. As an example, recall BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill in July of 2010 when then CEO Tony Hayward delivered what the New York Times called "the sound bite from hell" in saying, "I'd like my life back." These types of comments add fuel to the fire.
To be fair, Coach Hoke, who starts nearly every response to a question with "well," is a football coach, not a communications expert. This is what makes Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon's response even more frustrating. Although it contradicted what was communicated earlier by Coach Hoke, it was the right message, tone and response. Brandon acknowledged that a mistake had been made, apologized and laid out two specific procedural changes that will be implemented immediately. Up until the Rutgers game, he went on the offensive conducting a number of interviews to amplify his message. These are steps two and three in crisis management, unfortunately for Michigan, they happened too late. The damage had already been done.
The story had permeated the main stream media, protests were held on Michigan's campus and a petition to fire Brandon has been signed by over 11,000 individuals. To borrow and adapt an adage from Warren Buffett, it has taken Michigan Football over a hundred years to build one of the most recognizable brands in college football, but a matter of a few weeks to destroy it.
In October of 2010, Tony Hayward's tenure as CEO of BP came to an end. Almost exactly four years later, Michigan's board of regents is meeting to discuss if Brandon and potentially Hoke's jobs are destined for the same fate. A win over Penn State last weekend was much needed, but a bye week and a regents meeting puts the spotlight back on this lingering communications crisis. In today's world of big business football, Division I coaches and athletic departments need professional communications help. Without it, teams stand the chance of losing more than just games.