Anticipation, preparation, and training. All three are integral components of crisis management strategy that Baylor and its former President Ken Starr overlooked before the release of an investigation into the university’s incredibly callous and most likely illegal handling of sexual assault allegations. The failings of Starr and the Baylor Board of Regents will cause lasting damage to the university’s brand; it could take decades to restore its now tarnished reputation. While the legal ramifications of ensuing lawsuits and hefty settlements will be detrimental, the most destruction to Baylor will come in the court of public opinion. And nothing the school can do will ever erase the public’s remembrance of the awful way they treated the victims – and nothing should.
Over the next few years, Baylor will be exposed to NCAA investigations truncating athletics, the potential withholding of federal funding, declining alumni donations, and a weakened pitch for prospective students.
This is not the first Baylor crisis to receive national attention. In 2003, a member of the men’s basketball shot and killed a teammate. The subsequent NCAA investigation revealed that coaches had been providing improper cash benefits to athletes and that a rampant drug abuse problem existed among the basketball team. The revelations of the investigation alone should have revealed to Baylor the value of proactive crisis management. Apparently, they never got the message.
Before a crisis event hits, an institution the size of Baylor and a president with the notoriety of Starr should have top-notch crisis planners working on a proactive blueprint for the worst case scenario. Starr’s decision to choose Merrie Spaeth as his PR representative only after the crisis spun out of control was a reactive move that led to a series of gaffs in a now viral KWTX interview.
Spaeth seemingly failed her client with a lack of interview preparation, which would have helped polish answers for predictable “gotcha” questions. Starr was guaranteed to be asked if he ever received the well-documented email from a former rape victim alerting the Baylor administration to the incident. Yet, when the question was asked, Starr first flubbed his answer, leading Spaeth to intervene and counsel him off camera before he returned to answer it with a vague and unconvincing, “I have no recollection.” For Starr, who stepped down from his role with the University for the express purpose of being open and honest with the public, the entire series comes across as insincere.
Starr had two choices: either provide an honest, clear, and concise answer to the reporter’s question, or do not conduct the interview. Instead, the “easy layup” of granting an interview to a hand-picked outlet never made it in the basket. Lack of preparation for a predictable question–one any journalist with integrity would have asked–resulted in even worse press for the former president and the institution.
Proper interview preparation could have equipped Starr for the rape email question, but more alarming is his apparent lack of understanding of the overall media landscape. The worst moment came during a tone-deaf Outside The Lines interview where Starr praises former football coach Art Briles as a “father figure.” Starr should understand the media implication of complimenting Briles’ off-the-field character, given the former coach is at the center of a sexual assault cover-up investigation.
Starr’s self-inflicted media fiasco should serve as a lesson for other universities about the value of proactive crisis management and transparent communication. Preemptive strategizing, with the help of the right communicators, will always be more effective than improvising on the fly. This time, in a scenario that could have been predicted by those astute enough to plan for the worst case scenario, both Starr and Baylor failed the test.
Silas Hill contributed to this post.