Duke University lacrosse–now the prosecution is on defense

December 27, 2006

This article from the Associated Press about Duke University’s silence in the aftermath of the rape accusations against members of the lacrosse team highlights a critical challenge and conundrum for crisis communicators.

The article certainly reads as if the University’s position of largely remaining silent while the media storm around the students was swirling looks smart and responsible. The basic theme is that the University was intent on not allowing the case to be tried in the media but let the courts decide.

“I don’t believe the issues have ever been Duke’s support of the students,” Burness said. “The issue has been there is a process in our democracy by which questions of this magnitude are addressed. It’s only when you get before a judge or jury that the truth can be determined. You have to have faith in the system, recognizing it can be difficult to do but realizing that’s how system works.”

Early in the case, when scrutiny of the university and the program was at its height, Brodhead was cautious in his statements, saying the case should unfold in the legal system instead of in the media. School administrators said this month that bad publicity was the likely cause of a 20 percent drop in early admission applications.

Burness’ statement that “there is a process in our democracy by which questions of this magnitude are addressed” is really the key. Yes, but, well, there are actually two processes. One is the court of law, the other is the court of public opinion. Wise leaders need to determine early on in a major news story of where their danger really lies. In some cases, the court of law can do more damage to the long term viability of the organization than the court of public opinion–depending in part on how the story is being played out. An example of this is the numerous legal actions against widely accepted and used medications. The billion dollar lawsuits can grind on in the background while the public blithely continues to consume–that even when the media is playing prosecutor to the fullest extent.

But in this case, the lacrosse team and the University itself was on trial from the moment the situation became news. Silence in the face of such accusations is normally interpreted as guilt. As the errors or evils of the prosecution come to light, the University is having to defend itself against those who say they didn’t stand behind the program or the students. The explanation of Mr. Burness, looks, well, weak and defensive.

The proof is in the pudding, of course. As the story points out the University experienced a huge drop in applications for enrollment. This is a result of the court of public opinion at work, not the court of law. And I would guess that if a survey were taken of the most respected universities, Duke would have fallen down that list quite a bit in the aftermath of the lacrosse incident.

So, here’s the conundrum. I can certainly understand and want very much to support the strategy the University pursued and the sentiments expressed about the desire to let the legal system work as an excuse for not being more vocal. The problem is, the evidence in this case shows it doesn’t work. You can’t end the media storm by silence. You can emerge later when the wind is shifting in your direction and pretend you response or lack of it meant something different than it did. And you can’t deny that you lost the battle in the court of public opinion. And you can’t claim that that matters less than winning in the court of law.

Sum total: the silence they now hail as wisdom is far from golden.

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