Sports PR: How folding under social media pressure created crisis 

by | Dec 6, 2017 | Analysis, Public Relations

John Currie’s disastrous coaching search ended last Friday morning when he was relieved of his role as the University of Tennessee’s athletic director after less than a year in the job. Even before the news broke a few days prior that Greg Schiano would not be named the Volunteer’s next head football coach, as a crisis communications specialist, I had a sense I knew how this debacle was going to end.

In 2017, we have seen so many institutions come under fire. While many chief executives have managed to weather the storm of a crisis, look no further than Equifax and Uber to see that the ones that fumbled in their initial response are more than likely to be shown the door with an ungraceful exit.

Currie handled the rollout of the controversial hire poorly

Currie may have made a mistake in believing that Volunteers’ fans would be satisfied with a surprise choice in Schiano after weeks of swirling higher-profile rumors.  But make no mistake: Currie lost his job because he did not hire Schiano. Think that’s a crazy idea? Let me explain.

The day the news broke, after word of Schiano’s impending hire was leaked out, the immediate backlash was swift and severe. Virulent reactions went viral with an unprecedented tenacity, even by SEC football standards. By mid-afternoon, reporters were quickly editing articles to feature students’ freshly-painted handiwork scrawled on a campus landmark defaming Schiano. Four leading Tennessee gubernatorial candidates took to Twitter, resolute that an accomplice to the infamous Jerry Sandusky scandal could not represent the school, let alone carry the title of the highest paid state employee. Sarah Huckabee Sanders called Currie out on her Facebook page.

The only one seemingly not to weigh in on Schiano’s alleged ties to the Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal was Currie himself

In offering up a mea culpa Monday, Currie detailed the due diligence he had gone through in vetting Schiano, and confirming that Ohio State and the Freeh investigation had each cleared him of any wrongdoing. Yet, he remained silent all of Sunday as social media was erupting over allegations he knew were misguided.

Imagine if Currie had greeted the initial reaction with that same explanation, but just a day earlier. Just one tweet might have quelched the growing mob’s anger. Something along the lines of “we investigated this allegation fully and we found nothing to make us question this decision. We’re sticking with him and excited for next season.” As I tell my clients all the time, in a crisis, you can’t go wrong by doing the right thing. For someone who went the extra mile in researching Schiano’s link to Sandusky, Currie was shockingly ill-prepared for a narrative he knew was bound to surface.

What ultimately doomed Currie is a phenomenon that goes well beyond the football field

Corporate America still doesn’t understand social media. Brands struggle to decipher between the fire and brimstone of social media and definitive offline results. That same Monday, New York Magazine ran a story titled “Companies Should Ignore Angry Online Mobs More”. It came a day late for Currie.

The fan base wanted a bigger name like ESPN’s Jon Gruden or Mike Leach hired, and tacking on the stink of the Sandusky scandal to Schiano’s reputation was a bitter form of lashing out. Last week, Currie smelled smoke but there was no fire! Instead of having a nuanced reaction to the social media smoke, he let impulsive reactions become an accelerant to the fire that torched Schiano’s reputation, and immediately capitulated.

Currie wasn’t prepared for the social media backlash, and, as the only one who needed to have a level head in this harried situation, chose to ignore the truth. Just this week, between his own rumored settlement and the cost of litigation Schiano would be smart to bring soon, his decision to remain silent Sunday not only failed the university, but has cost the taxpayers of Tennessee millions.

So the next time you see a controversial coaching hire or major corporate scandal make headlines, look closely at the timing of the very first statement from the party under siege. Currie’s first statement was deafening silence, and it wound up running him out of Knoxville.

Isaac Benjamin
Isaac Benjamin is a communications strategist at PRCG|Haggerty in New York City.


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