Ohio State Didn’t Get Shut Out, But Still Badly Lost At PR

There’s a saying, widely used by coaches, that I’ve used both with my family and with clients during tough times.

“Adversity doesn’t build character. It reveals character.”

Ohio State University, its Athletic Department and its head football coach, Urban Meyer have been challenged by recent adversity. Last night, that may have dangerously revealed Meyer’s character even during and effort to turn the tide on the school’s PR.

Impressively, the University did not choose to hide behind just lawyerized written statements. As one of America’s great corporate communicators, Ray Kerins, likes to say (and I have shamelessly stolen), “Push people, not paper.” OSU made its president, athletic director and Meyer himself available to answer questions from journalists. That was commendable, but only part of the story.

Ohio State did not fare nearly as well if you look at the three fundamentals of adversity communications management. In fact, they showed, at best, a lack of preparation and, a worst, a lack of commitment to saying or doing the right things.

1) Communicate the facts, as you know them: OSU started with just one fact – the three-game suspension for Meyer. They waited until after the news conference to distribute their investigator’s report – assuring that questions about subjects like strip bars, deleted text messages, memory issues because of medications and preparing Meyer for a July press conference during which he lied would not be answered. That could really come back to haunt them, as those questions will now linger and permeate every possible media availability.

2) Reassure audiences: It’s hard to point to one memorable point in the communication, including the 30-minute press conference, during which OSU leaders said anything or announced any measures to assure audiences that the University will do a better job in the future of not protecting abusers on its coaching staffs.

3) Express sympathy for the people affected: They apologized to fans but when it was time to send a messages to his employee’s alleged victim, here was Meyer’s stammering response: “Well, I have a message for everyone involved with this, I’m sorry we’re in this situation. And, uhm, I’m sorry we’re in this situation.”

That was before asking his audiences to take a giant leap and somehow believe his wife never showed him text messages from a longtime employee’s wife about abuse.

It was impossible to watch the proceedings, especially after reading the report, to walk away with feeling anything but the fact that true character was put out in front, for the world to see. Protecting a winning coach’s career, for better or worse, rose to the top priority.

What’s next? Among zealots, probably a sigh of relief. Among everyone else, more questions for Meyer, more heat for the administrations and likely, new protests when Meyer returns to the sidelines.