Manti Te’o’s story broke onto the national scene as a public relations dream, a heartbreaking and inspirational story about a rising star football player driven to victory by the memory of his lost love. It has now evolved into an embarrassing scandal that leaves Notre Dame and its star player scrambling for damage control.
As a PR professional, I’ve asked myself repeatedly if the university’s PR team could have prevented this. The answer is yes.
I understand why the team, coaches, university and media all got swept up in the story of Te’o’s girlfriend. What I don’t understand is why Notre Dame was seemingly caught off guard without a crisis management tool in place.
While the university’s PR team might not have created this story, it was their responsibility to manage it. From the first time Te’o talked about “Lennay Kekua” in an interview, a vetting process should have shifted into high gear in order to protect the university, Te’o and the supposed young woman’s family who would be unexpectedly swept up in a wave of national attention.
They say a lawyer should never ask a question in court without knowing the answer. Well, a PR team should never sell a story to the media without knowing everything and everyone involved. A PR pro’s job is to know the full story before the media does, which often requires some digging at the outset.
When the romance story broke, who sat down with Te’o and asked him the basics about Kekua (where she lived, the best way to reach her, the best way to reach her parents—and no, Twitter does not count)? You would think someone on the Notre Dame PR team would have contacted the hospital where Kekua supposedly died. At the very least they should have given the hospital’s PR team a heads up about possible media inquiries.
As the story developed, it became more and more apparent that the Notre Dame PR team did not execute the proper amount of front-end legwork. Traffic accident reports are simple to obtain, so are obituaries. PR 101 stresses the importance of knowing everything that is being said about your client and having an investigative plan in place for any red flags. This whole media frenzy could have been avoided if the Notre Dame PR team would have taken a more involved approach with Te’o’s story.
This situation is a major fumble for Notre Dame coming off of a banner year for the school’s football program. They made fools of themselves and seemingly every major news network in the country. While some blame must be placed on reporters and their lack of fact-checking, Notre Dame’s PR team will receive a majority of the backlash. Journalists trusted that the story was accurate and that the university’s team did the proper vetting.
I understand why Notre Dame took an emotional and tragic situation and let it spread, especially because it helped drive interest in Te’o as a Heisman candidate and the Notre Dame football team as a whole. But it never should have spread before some serious fact checking.
Bottom line, if you are going to take the credit, or benefit in any way when a story is winning in the media, you must be ready to take the blame if that same story comes crashing down.
Lisa Arledge Powell is the president of MediaSource, a multimedia production and media relations company that works with hospitals, health care organizations, and other brands to get their message to the masses.