Duke cautious as lacrosse controversy continues

DURHAM, NC: Duke University is attempting to focus on positive aspects of its student body, and deflect questions about the criminal investigation into two student athletes.

DURHAM, NC: Duke University is attempting to focus on positive aspects of its student body, and deflect questions about the criminal investigation into two student athletes.

Last week, the lacrosse players were indicted for allegedly raping and kidnapping a stripper who they hired to perform at a party. The salacious details of the story, including the class and race issues it raises, are a major focus of media attention right now.

"The challenge here is that the central facts of the story have been so much in dispute," said David Jarmul, Duke's associate VP for news and communications.

However, Jarmul said Duke is handling questions of whether the lacrosse team was out of control and what the incident says about the university, sports program, and students.

Jarmul said that while the university has been inundated with phone calls and has spoken to the press, it has currently declined to appear on cable shows and has tried to steer clear of any legal questions.

"The prominent media attention has been about the case, such as DNA evidence," Jarmul said. "Those are issues for the criminal investigation. The challenge has been to make it clear to the news media that we're not going to engage in the daily ins and outs of the legal case."

John Burness, SVP for public affairs and government relations, reaffirmed that strategy in an Op-Ed that ran in major dailies on Wednesday.

"We plan to turn down those media requests, just as we've turned down similar requests over the past several weeks to discuss the legal ins and outs of the case. After all, the Duke administration is not carrying out the criminal investigation," Burness wrote.

Jarmul said that the university has spent a good portion of its energy communicating with the local television and print media.

"When our president announced [the formation of] these committees, he did it with local television," he continued, adding the university knew those channels would, in turn, feed it up to the networks.

Jarmul deemed local coverage "nuanced."

But Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates PR, a reputation management firm that works with athletes, organizations, and companies, said Duke has not expressed enough empathy for the victim.

"The president needs to send a message to the victim of the situation saying, 'We're still not sure who did this to you, but I have seen photos of your face beaten up. We want to make clear [that] if anyone associated with this university was responsible for this, they will be held accountable,'" Paul said. "It's never too late to call a press conference."

"Some people have criticized us for not showing what they feel is enough compassion for the victim and [our community] neighbors," Jarmul said. "But we've also received criticism from people who feel we have not been supportive enough for the lacrosse team and those who feel it's unfair to end the lacrosse season and give in to pressure."

The university set up a Web site, linked directly from the homepage, which shows a wide range of opinions and news analysis. Jarmul, who is in charge of the Web site's upkeep, said he was convinced from the beginning to take a broad spectrum of opinions.

"If I fill it up with just happy talk, it has no credibility," he said, noting that any endeavor to control information would be futile anyway. "It's not like people aren't going to get that elsewhere." He added, "It's also our responsibility to share that information."

Duke has not considered working with any external agencies, but Jarmul said it has tapped the expertise of alumni and trustee resources, some of whom are former journalists.

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