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UI considers changes to crisis communication; experts offer tips

Football parent Biff Poggi (from left), Director of Football Operations Paul Federici and Dr. John Stokes address the media Jan. 26 about the hospitalization of 13 University of Iowa football players. Who wasn’t at this news conference — football coach Kirk Ferentz and Athletics Director Gary Barta — launched a national firestorm of criticism. (Jim Slosiarek/SourceMedia Group News)
Football parent Biff Poggi (from left), Director of Football Operations Paul Federici and Dr. John Stokes address the media Jan. 26 about the hospitalization of 13 University of Iowa football players. Who wasn’t at this news conference — football coach Kirk Ferentz and Athletics Director Gary Barta — launched a national firestorm of criticism. (Jim Slosiarek/SourceMedia Group News)

University of Iowa officials are discussing ways to improve how they communicate in a crisis, after the university’s response to the recent hospitalization of football players garnered bad press across the nation.

It’s not a review of UI policy, President Sally Mason said, but there are “cabinet-level discussions” about the issue. “I think we’re learning, we’re constantly learning, and we always have room for improvement,” she said. “What have we learned? What do we need to do better?”

Experts in image consulting and communications say immediacy, transparency, honesty and empathy are key when an organization is hit with a crisis and the public and media are demanding information. “When you let there be a lag time, that can be perceived as lack of concern or avoidance,” said Kate Loor, vice president with Frank Magid Associates, speaking about crisis communication in general. “We usually counsel to treat perception as fact, because there are situations where an organization may sit back and say, ‘Well, that’s not really what happened,’ ” Loor said. “But if that’s the public perception, it may as well be what happened, because that is very damaging.”

Lag time is where the UI has taken criticism — lag time for information and for key athletics figures to make an appearance.

UI Athletics Director Gary Barta said when news first broke of the 13 hospitalized football players, UI officials didn’t have a lot of information and their No. 1 concern was for the players’ safety. “We felt that was all the information we had at the time,” Barta said of the initial UI response. “In hindsight, maybe I would have done things differently, but we went with what we knew at the time.”

The football players were admitted to University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics on Jan. 24 with a condition called rhabdomyolysis, a breakdown of muscle fibers that can cause kidney damage. Word of the hospitalization spread in the media on Jan. 25. The university held a news conference Jan. 26, but neither head football coach Kirk Ferentz nor Barta attended. Both were traveling. By Jan. 30, all the players had been released from the hospital. The university is still investigating the cause of the illness.

Ferentz’s absence from the Jan. 26 news conference was at the crux of national criticism. He made his first media appearance since the players fell ill on Feb. 2, for national signing day. He addressed the hospitalizations and said it was “bad judgment on my part” to not return immediately to Iowa City to be with his hospitalized players or for the news conference.

Generally speaking, having organizational leaders present, answering to the public and the media during a crisis, is important, said Gregory Vistica, founder and president of Washington Media Group. Vistica’s firm handles a lot of crisis communications and until recently worked with the government of Tunisia. “The public wants accountability, and they want to see the fact that senior people, that they get it,” Vistica said. It also shows that “the concern goes right to the top, that the issue is important and being addressed at the highest levels,” said Loor, Magid vice president. Loor works out of the Charlotte, N.C., office, but the strategic consulting firm also has an office in Marion. When there is damage to the image or brand value, it can take time to rebuild through a good communications plan, transparency and honesty, Vistica said. “It’s sort of hard to assess what brand value is, but it’s very easy to lose,” he said.

Marketing and media relations for UI athletics are handled internally by the department. When asked if athletics crisis communications might be moved to the office of the UI’s vice president for strategic communications, Tysen Kendig, Mason said it doesn’t matter who reports to whom.

What’s important, the UI president said, is that communication is happening among the UI officials who put the message out to the public and the media.

“We’re beginning a conversation about making sure we have better coordination between the various groups,” Mason said. “It just matters that we’re communicating.”

Athletics Department officials did consult with Kendig’s office in this case, as they have in the past, and they will continue to do so, Barta said.Kendig declined to be interviewed for this story, although he said by e-mail that when the university completes its investigation of what caused the players’ illness, “we’ll be very open in sharing and discussing the outcome.”

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