Purdue Lets Football PR Crisis Simmer

Even in the sport of Big Time college football, where it feels like every play is tweeted during the game and every take is amplified afterward, there can be a bombshell story.

The Detroit News had one in recent days, as the parents of University of Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight trusted reporter Angelique Chengelis with their deeply personal account of what happened after their son was injured in the September 23rd game at Purdue University. Chengelis took their narrative and dug in with questions for both Purdue and Michigan, in an effort to paint a more clear picture of what happened that day. The story and sidebar featuring an internal Michigan memo, calls into question how Purdue handled the injury, which resulted in multiple broken vertebrae.

The report casts doubt on Purdue’s commitment to what should be its highest priority – the health and safety of its students, which all leaders in higher education generally agree extends to visiting athletes. But what does the University have to say about it? Multiple journalists report that the University would not comment, referring all inquiries to the Athletic Department. As for Athletics, here is what Chengelis reported:

“Tom Schott, Purdue’s senior associate athletics director for communications, replied to (Michigan Coach Jim) Harbaugh’s complaints (in September similar to what the Speights say but with far less detail) by saying the university’s medical facilities were similar to those at other Big Ten schools. Schott reiterated the athletic department’s stance when contacted by The Detroit News for this story, saying: ‘We stick with our original statement and are looking forward to being engaged in continued conversations as they relate to setting standards for visiting teams.'”

This is Purdue ignoring virtually all of the fundamentals of effective adversity communication and falling into a trap that will only extend this simmering crisis. It’s a reaction far too common in big time athletic programs.

Too often, even the schools that are otherwise the most sophisticated struggle with handling bad sports-related news. The athletic PR people, even the best of them, are most comfortable talking to media about sports, which is exactly where universities want them. The “main campus” PR people are too often gatekeepers and protectors, charged with making the school and its administrators “look good,” rather than serving as providers of access and information and nurturing media relationships. The fact that, in this case, Purdue’s president is a former governor may factor in this awful “no comment” decision with a political element. As usual, the lawyers likely are not helping, likely fearful of a lawsuit from the Speights.

Purdue needs to put itself in the position of its audiences. How would the parents of a student feel about its messaging, or lack thereof? Or even a fan at game, who expects the University to protects his or her safety? What about long-term reputation? Those factors, among others, should drive communication decision-making.

Every crisis is an opportunity to get out a message, from a PR standpoint and just do better, from an organizational standpoint. Purdue, like too many others, would rather try to hide. It will not serve them well.