Part of the Game Plan

A crisis, by definition, means bad news. But, with a team approach and a playbook of options, your department can pull off a spectacular comeback.

By Kathleen Hessert and Connie Gillette

Kathleen Hessert is President of Sports Media Challenge, a training and consulting firm that helps train athletes, coaches, and administrators in crisis management, media relations, and public speaking. She is author of Power Training: How to Win at the Media Game and The Coach’s Communication Playbook. Connie Gillette is a Sports Media Challenge consultant and trainer with more than 14 years of media relations experience in both the U.S. and Europe.

Athletic Management, 14.6, October/November 2002,

Whether it’s an athlete arrested for a drug offense, a coach accused of sexual harassment, or bleachers collapsing during a sold-out event, no crisis ever seems like it will produce anything positive. But the truth is, when handled correctly, even a negative event can end up leaving the general public with a more positive impression of your organization.

Frankly, every crisis eventually ends. It’s how you make it go away that determines the ultimate outcome.

Skeptical? Think outside of the sports box for a moment. Tylenol is the classic crisis case of the 1980s. Seven people died in the fall of 1982 after using Tylenol capsules that were contaminated with cyanide.

No one at Johnson & Johnson believed that their production was at fault. Nevertheless, the company boldly took a “find it and fix it” approach. In an aggressive nationwide media blitz, the company pulled its product off the shelves. It asked all citizens to immediately stop taking Tylenol and promised to reimburse all affected parties. Most importantly, it followed up with a plan to ensure that nothing like this would ever happen again by introducing tamper-proof packaging, which is accepted as standard today.

Yes, there was an initial revenue hit and a drop in market share. But then the company’s stock price rose dramatically, and the product’s strong recovery is why you may end up swallowing Tylenol capsules to help you through your next crisis.

New Crises Emerging
Several years ago, I began writing into crisis plans the ability to call for a “No Fly Zone” over facilities, and clients thought I had lost all reason. But post 9/11, the threat of a plane zeroing in on a capacity crowd in a 100,000-seat stadium is now very apparent.

From the moment fans walk into your stadium, their safety is your responsibility. So whether it’s a terrorist attack or a fire in the women’s restroom, there are certain steps that can and should be taken to safeguard your constituencies and help insulate your school from a debacle in the making.

How would you announce and carry out an orderly evacuation of your facility? Who calls for evacuation? How is it announced so as not to cause panic? Should staff be responsible for crowd control and possibly risk their own safety in the process?

The answers lie is the development of a crisis-management plan. This is a difficult exercise because we don’t like to think negatively, but you need to put a few heads together to ensure all bases are covered.

The first step is to make sure that all levels of administration buy into the importance of crisis planning. That means your sports information director and individual coaches understand they are not to handle crises alone. And it also means that upper-level administrators at your school are ready to help you, as the athletic director, through a crisis, when needed.

It is also a good idea to put together a special “crisis management team,” a standing committee that reviews plans once a year and can quickly assist in the decision-making process when a crisis arises. The team should consist of key influencers including the president, coaches, legal advisors, athletic trainers, media relations officers, and a few others who speak specifically to a particular type of crisis, such as a team physician, compliance director, or finance director—whoever you think you might need.

After you’ve assembled your team, the first unpleasant thing you must do is ask, “What could go wrong?” Some scenarios to include on the list:

• Activist groups targeting your important constituencies to boycott events.

• Allegations of improper sexual conduct between a staff member and a student-athlete.

• Labor issues including contract disputes, strikes, hirings, firings, and unexpected resignations.

• Resume improprieties by coaches or administrators.

• A facility failure causing injury and death.

• Large-scale evacuation of a facility due to imminent danger such as a fire or bomb threat.

• A transportation accident causing injury or death.

• Allegations of major NCAA violations.

• Criminal charges alleged or filed.

• Continually declining ticket sales causing greater financial burden on the department.

But don’t simply rely on examples of incidents that have happened in the past. Also plan for the wildest and most unexpected issues and events. Trust me, it’s better to think about it, plan for it, and never use it, than it is to face a crisis with no plan at all.

After you’ve determined all that could happen, you’ll need to spend some time deciding how likely each scenario actually is. The potential impact of a crisis is important to determine in advance, but so too is its probability. That way you can properly allocate your planning time based on likelihood and impact. And, finally, you’ll need to collectively determine how prepared your organization actually is.

A big part of preparing for a crisis is knowing how to respond. Turning a potential disaster into a positive starts with applying the basics of crisis communication. The first basic is to respond and to respond quickly.

Remember that information is the most important element of a crisis. Everybody wants it and they want it fast! The problem is, you don’t always have all the information people want. And most initial news reports regarding a crisis get it wrong.

However, don’t let an initial negative media report depress you, regardless of its accuracy. In the maelstrom of a crisis, the public will continue to watch for information, and when you flesh out and articulate the facts, they’ll listen. But you do have to get the story right, and you have to get it fairly quickly.

So how do you do that? You start by getting your crisis team together along with anyone else who might be helpful in this particular situation. You review the facts you know and the plan you developed for this particular crisis. You decide whether you can follow the plan to the letter or if there should be any deviations. Then you call a press conference.

It’s critical that your organization speaks with one voice during a crisis, and the best way to accomplish this is to have one spokesperson. The appropriate spokesperson depends upon the kind of crisis, its severity, and whether or not you’re trying to downplay it internally and externally. For example, if an athlete is involved in an alcohol-related incident, the coach may be the appropriate spokesperson. But if there have been a string of alcohol-related incidents across several sports, it may be the athletic director or even the university president who needs to step up to the microphone.

And speaking of stepping up to the mic, make sure all members of your crisis communication team are media trained. You’ll be way ahead of the game if everyone understands the basic rules of engaging or deflecting the media.

After the initial response, there are four more Rs of crisis communication: regret, responsibility, restitution, and reform.

1. Immediately inform your stakeholders you regret the terrible incidents that have happened.

2. Even though you may not be in any way responsible for the crisis, take responsibility for finding a solution.

3. Compensating those affected can take many forms, like a refund or coupon for an upcoming event.

4. Initiate a change that can potentially prevent or at least mute any future similar instances, and communicate those actions to your appropriate constituencies. People can’t support decisions they don’t know about.

While we can’t predict the future, there’s a great probability that your athletic program will face a crisis at some point. Keeping these guidelines in mind may help you not only survive a crisis, but actually improve your program’s image through the way it deals with the situation. It’s most likely that your administration won’t be remembered for the seven years leading up to the negative event, but rather the three months of leadership during the peak of a crisis.

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