Paul Holmes

Case of former Colorado University president offers lessons on the benefits of PR counsel

Case of former Colorado University president offers lessons on the benefits of PR counsel

PR people have long argued that clients in crisis should pay more attention to their PR people and a little less to their attorneys. And for the most part, they have been ignored.

So it's nice to hear a former leader talk about the lessons she learned during a recent crisis - even though she paid a high price for the education.

Former University of Colorado president Elizabeth Hoffman was ultimately forced to resign over her handling of the school's football recruiting scandal - sparked by a lawsuit in which three women claimed they had been raped by football players or recruits. And a couple of weeks ago, she shared the most important lesson of the crisis with the Denver Forum, a civic group: She had listened too closely to her legal advisers and not enough to PR experts.

Hoffman learned the lesson that should be apparent to anyone who studied either the demise of Arthur Andersen or the Michael Jackson trial, which is that conviction in the court of public opinion can take weeks, sometimes days, while exoneration in a court of law can take months or even years. And by the time it comes, it may be too late.

Like Andersen and Jackson, the University of Colorado won the legal battle. The charges against the school were thrown out of federal court this summer. But that vindication came too late for Hoffman, whose handling of the media aspects of the crisis sealed her demise.

Hoffman warned leaders at the Denver Forum that they need to adapt to a media environment in which stories move faster than public officials can react. Officials and institutions "are tried and convicted in an instant," she was quoted as stating in a Rocky Mountain News article. She went on to cite her experience during the lawsuit and the furor over comments by ethics studies professor Ward Churchill, who suggested that victims of 9/11 shared in the responsibility for US government policies that provoked the attacks.

Blogs, in particular, have changed the rules of the game. Hoffman told the Denver Forum that just 10 minutes after the first blogger reported Churchill's comments, people were calling the state governor and demanding the professor's dismissal. And, of course, the mainstream media have been forced to adapt, which means they now rush stories onto the airwaves or into print more rapidly - and with less fact checking - than before.

In such a climate, any executive (especially one who believes in his innocence) who follows the traditional advice of his attorney - to say as little as possible, admit no weakness or error - is likely to find his reputation in tatters and his business damaged beyond repair. Any subsequent victory in the legal arena is likely to be a Pyrrhic one.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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