Comment: Managing – and protecting – your reputation
Benjamin Franklin once said, “Glass, china, and reputation are easily cracked, and never well mended.”
An increasing number of college athletics departments today have crisis-management plans, but few have addressed the issue of reputation management and recovery.
A recent international study by a public relations firm found that reputation is a major contributor to market value of a company. The same notion applies in collegiate athletics.
Once a company (or an athletics department) suffers a significant hit in reputation through a crisis, it may take three or four years to recover. Reputations are built and lost in how athletics administrators and their staffs respond to crisis.
In the last two years, Montana State has been embroiled in a series of high-profile incidents that landed in the pages of Sports Illustrated. The saga began with the murder of a local drug dealer by two former MSU student-athletes in the spring of 2006. As the circumstances unfolded, a string of former and current student-athletes emerged as participants in a drug ring that included the use of scholarship monies.
The events unfortunately coincided with a long-anticipated athletics department capital campaign and left the small town of Bozeman emotionally reeling. The issue at hand was how to recover the reputation that was crumbling right before our eyes.
We began by implementing a three-step process of assessment, restoration and long-term management.
Our first step was to assemble a reputation-recovery team composed of a senior associate athletics director, compliance officer, marketing director, student services coordinator and a media relations associate. The team answered directly to the athletics director. The first order of business was for everyone on the team to do a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis of the current state of the department.
Second was to prioritize our stakeholder groups. We also examined some basic principles about reputation recovery and encouraged our communications associates to follow a proven process of “aggressive disclosure” when it comes to communicating to the public.
After the assessment phase (which is ongoing and revisited quarterly), we began focusing on restoration.
The team agreed that our biggest assets were our student-athletes. In the previous 13 semesters, Montana State athletics teams maintained a grade-point average of 3.0 or higher. Our women’s basketball team had just placed in the top five in the country in GPA. Our athletes and staff were involved in community service. While we couldn’t refute the bad, we knew the positives far outweighed the negative.
Our student services staff came across a program from the NCAA CHAMPS/Life Skills program called the A.L.L. Challenge (or Champ’s Challenge) that pits athletics teams against each other in an annual contest of academic achievement, leadership and life skills. We tweaked the program to fit our campus culture, and a generous community donor provided funds to get us started.
The first year, which included some extensive marketing, was extremely successful. Our student-athletes amassed more than 3,200 hours of community service. During the second year, they surpassed that total at the semester break. Over 10 percent of the prestigious Awards of Excellence to seniors on campus went to student-athletes in both 2007 and 2008. Our biggest benchmark was a recent editorial in the local paper praising the turnaround of the athletics department. Our local media, which we had originally evaluated as being hostile, had now become an ally with our efforts.
We couldn’t control the negative, but we realized we were not accentuating the positive. Our press releases in the past had consisted mostly of contest-related stories. Now, we release many more feature-oriented stories about our athletes’ achievements in the classroom and in the community. We are forging volunteer partnerships with local non-profits in the area such as the local animal shelter and Big Brothers and Big Sisters.
These three phases of our reputation recovery run concurrently. Reputation management is now a core value, a long-term commitment. It is not a quick fix. Our long-term plan includes continued marketing efforts to promote our A.L.L Challenge to the public, and an active effort to continue to tell our good stories. We are also looking for more opportunities to partner with community organizations that can benefit from our large venue audiences and volunteer base.
After the events of 2006-07, Montana State’s president commissioned an independent report on how the athletics department recruits and retains student-athletes. The results were then released to the public. Part of our ongoing reputation effort is keeping the public informed on how we address any negative findings of that report.
One change we made was making sure every recruit on an official campus visit spends time with a senior athletics administrator and a faculty representative to ensure any potential recruit will be a good fit for both our athletics philosophy and our university academic community. More attention is paid to evaluating a potential student’s chance of success before they get on campus.
We are also working on crafting a communications model that includes responsible, purposeful, aggressive disclosure to the public about any crises in our department. Studies have shown that active disclosure of crisis events has the power to reduce the after-effects on the organization’s reputation.
Athletics directors and university presidents can reap a range of rewards that come from protecting and building reputation, rather than reacting to the devastation when that reputation is threatened.
As Benjamin Franklin said, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
© 2010 The National Collegiate Athletic Association