Notre Dame's reputation Hail Mary

Fans of Notre Dame's sports teams have always believed they had a secret weapon on their side: the luck of the Irish.

Fans of Notre Dame's sports teams have always believed they had a secret weapon on their side: the luck of the Irish. 

This past week, the university made a big gamble when it chose to publicly back football player Manti Te'o in the first moments that the girlfriend-hoax story broke, and school officials no doubt hoped some of that luck would rub off on them.

It's clear now that it is not.    

When leaders are confronted with an event that could threaten the reputation of their company or organization, they are also confronted with a series of choices about how to react. Those choices will either serve to mitigate or exacerbate the issue, demonstrating that often, the biggest risk to an organization's reputation isn't the vulnerabilities they know about — product recalls or litigation, for example — but their own actions responding to a crisis. 

In Notre Dame's case, school officials evidently learned on December 26 that Te'o's relationship was fictitious, and they hired an outside entity to conduct an investigation into the matter. So far, so good. 

When the story broke last Wednesday, school administrators made their most consequential decision in this matter: to publicly — and unequivocally — back him up. Before Te'o had publicly told his version of events, Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick held a wide-ranging press conference at which he repeated over and over that Te'o was duped. He vouched for his character, and left no wiggle room whatsoever. Their presentation was simple: Te'o is honest, and our independent inquiry verified it. Case closed. 

From that point forward, it wasn't just Te'o's reputation that hinged on the outcome, but Notre Dame's.

The initial returns don't make that course of action look like a wise one. An analysis of social media sentiment by Porter Novelli's analytics team in the hours and days after the story broke showed that most believed that Te'o was at least somewhat responsible for or complicit with the hoax. In fact, those expressing belief that Te'o was at least somewhat involved in the hoax strongly outnumbered those who believe Te'o by more than five to one. Further, the percentage of the conversation about Notre Dame that contains mentions of this hoax ballooned.

It's only gotten worse for Te'o and Notre Dame since then. Stories have emerged quoting teammates who say they doubted — all along — Te'o's relationship. On Thursday's Pardon the Interruption, the highly rated ESPN show, both hosts not only cast doubt on Te'o's innocence, they expressed surprise at how “all in” Notre Dame went in backing him given how little was still known about the facts. 

With elite sports opinion and public opinion trending against Notre Dame, late in the week Swarbrick began publicly urging Te'o to speak up.

On Sunday it was revealed that Notre Dame's investigation was not an investigation at all, but a two-day search of tweets and other electronic records. The university conducted no interviews of the people involved. And it took the school a full week to initiate it after Te'o came to them. 

In the end, the public will likely never know definitively whether or not Te'o was truly an innocent victim. But it also likely won't matter because public opinion has already coalesced, and at this point, it would take something extraordinary to reverse the first impressions.

From a reputation-management standpoint, it is also clear that Notre Dame violated some of the most basic principles of crisis response and as a result, made matters worse for itself.    

It could have broken the news itself, announcing that an anguished Te'o came to the school believing he had been victimized, and saying it had launched a thorough inquiry to understand what had happened.

The university could have conducted a truly meticulous inquiry, and used those results to guide their next steps.

But even if the story broke exactly as it did, there was another course of action for Notre Dame: prudence. Seasoned crisis responders know that the first information that you get in a crisis is usually wrong. It is much better to simply say, “We are still gathering the facts, and we will provide updates as we have them.”

Almost a week after legitimate questions were raised about Te'o's story, legitimate questions still surround Notre Dame's handling of this reputational event. More twists and turns will surely come, but as it stands now, it appears to be validating the old saying: luck is not a strategy.  

Sean Smith is an SVP on Porter Novelli's global crisis communications team. He previously served as assistant secretary for public affairs at the US Department of Homeland Security.

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