…when the circle-the-wagons strategy clearly is not working and your reputation and brand equity are in serious jeopardy. What are the golden rules for Crisis Communications? Tell the truth. Tell it all. Tell it fast. And say what you are going to do about it…And most of all: Don’t even think about covering it up.

As a 21-year University of Oregon football season ticket holder, a member of the Duck Athletic Fund for just as many years and now as a Graduate Teaching Fellow, pursuing a master’s degree from the UO School of Journalism and Communication, I am not exactly an unbiased and dispassionate commentator. Let’s face it: I bleed emerald-green and lemon-yellow or whatever combination of hues the Ducks are wearing sporting the Nike logo on a given Saturday…or Thursday, Friday etc.

At the same time, I have also been engaged in some very serious crisis comms activities during the course of my three-decade career in public relations most notably California’s response to the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake in San Francisco. I have dealt with more-than-my-fair share of chanting demonstrators, taunting political hacks, screaming reporters and editors to last a lifetime.

Now that I have made this necessary disclosure, I have to admit that these stories about Oregon and its relationship with Texas high-school football stud “mentor” Willie Lyles are very difficult to read particularly as both a passionate Oregon fan and as a communications choreographer.

The story of Oregon’s $25,000 payment to Lyles for recruiting services (some allege illegal contact with intensely recruited running backs LaMichael James and Lache Seastrunk) refuses to settle down. It’s time to make the call: This story has legs and the submerged submarine strategy is not working, and will not work.

It was revealed last week that the Oregon Athletic Department hired renowned sports attorney Mike Glazier, otherwise known as the “Cleaner.” He and his firm, the Collegiate Sports Practice Group of Bond, Schoeneck & King, have reportedly counseled Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Florida, Missouri, Minnesota and others in dealing with NCAA investigations and probes. Oregon is paying big billable hours in the face of the Willie Lyles caper.

And obviously if you are paying that kind of money to someone who knows something about the NCAA, it makes sense to listen to him and his colleagues. Having said that, the typical advice from attorneys is usually to shut down all public communications. After all, the NCAA and Pac-12 will ultimately decide Oregon’s fate, even if the university later decides to self-impose penalties. And for a while that strategy appeared to be working. If Oregon Sports Information Director Dave Williford has nothing new to say, the story gets boring. And if the story gets duller by the minute the media goes elsewhere for news.

That changed today with the publication by Yahoo Sports of its interview with Lyles, complete with personal notes to Lyles from Oregon Head Coach Chip Kelly. Lyles is contending that Oregon frantically was asking for recruiting information…any information…to justify the payment for recruiting services…not for assistance in landing four-and-five star players.

The time has come for a change in strategy and the attorney will most likely counsel to the contrary. The highly compensated cleaner and his colleagues should have their say and be part of the process, but this story is not going away. If Oregon does not talk, others will continue to talk. Oregon’s reputation and brand are in play in this social media world just like equities on the NYSE and NASDAQ and they are going downward to the right. Sometimes you reach a point when the reputation damage is permanent. Oregon is not there…yet.

The public needs to see University of Oregon President Richard Lariviere, Athletic Director Rob Mullens and Coach Kelly together on the same stage. Oregon should not be hasty in making them available, but the appearance should be sooner-as-opposed to later. They should be well prepared including “hot box” sessions with very difficult questions posed in preparation. Kelly in particular needs to be coached (coaching the Coach?) to drop the smart-aleck one-liners and to provide complete answers to these questions. This is not a sideline interview with Erin Andrews.

If the truth is that Oregon paid Lyles to deliver Seastrunk and/or James or others, the university should own up to it. Don’t even think about following in the failed cover-up footsteps of Anthony Weiner, John Edwards or Arnold Schwarzenegger…the truth will win out.

If the truth is Oregon behaved properly but has an Autzen Stadium-sized perception problem, the Big Three should calmly and carefully walk the reporters, editors, and bloggers through their side of the story. We really have not heard Oregon’s side of the story, just Nixonian blanket statements that the department has not done anything wrong.

No one wants the media to drive the story and set the agenda. That may be true, but in this case the blood is already in the water and the hungry sharks are circling. There is nothing else really happening in college football in July and this is a big story.

And it is made bigger by blogging, podcasting, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and the literally the millions of computers tied together by zillions of miles of fiber-optic cable.

As Mike Riley, the head coach of Oregon’s rival about 40 miles up the road from Eugene said recently about the loss of control in this new world of social media:

“I tell our players all the time, ‘As soon as you start going down the wrong track and you start doing something wrong, the clock starts ticking until the day you are caught, because it’s going to happen’…”In our world today, you think it’s not going to be found out eventually?” Oregon State Football Coach Mike Riley

Coach Riley’s words don’t just apply to football players.

 

 

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