Northwestern University had a very bad week – their crisis communications made it worse
July 12, 2023
Last Friday, at the end of a Fourth of July-shortened workweek, Northwestern University posted an announcement to its website: “Northwestern announces actions to prevent hazing following football investigation.” Burying the lead, the headline omitted what was arguably the most newsworthy part of the announcement: Pat Fitzgerald, the school’s football coach, would serve a two-week unpaid suspension during what is typically the quietest part of the off season. The news came after a six-month independent investigation conducted by ArentFox, which reportedly found evidence of hazing among players, but didn’t find “sufficient” evidence that the coaching staff knew of the hazing.
The administration seemed wholly unprepared for the crisis that followed.
Lesson 1: When a crisis occurs, university leaders need all relevant information – the good, the bad and the ugly.
A day after the suspension was announced, the school’s student-run newspaper published an article with details of the hazing, some of it sexual in nature, including evidence suggesting the coaching staff may have been aware of it.
That evening, Northwestern President Michael Schill acknowledged that he “might have erred” in only suspending Fitzgerald for two weeks during the off season, while also indicating that he only learned some details about the nature of the hazing after the Daily Northwestern published its report.
It’s not a good look for the university administration or its outside counsel when the thoroughness of a six-month independent investigation, which resulted in a slap-on-the-wrist punishment, gets turned upside down by student-journalists.
The university’s lack of crisis communications preparation for the ensuing fallout became increasingly apparent throughout the weekend and into the following week.
Lesson 2: You cannot schedule a crisis.
As Monday dawned, key stakeholders, including students and their parents, current and former athletes, faculty, alumni and the media, all weighed in. Many were vocal in their support of Fitzgerald, who was also a celebrated player on Northwestern’s 1995 football team. But others associated with the football program started to publicly share their own negative experiences that seemed to support the allegations against the program.
It seemed that the university was reconsidering its punishment of Fitzgerald, but the school remained silent for much of the day. It certainly didn’t help that Northwestern Athletic Director Dr. Derrick Gragg was apparently on vacation out of the country as the crisis unfolded.
As leader of the university’s athletics, with responsibility for hiring and firing coaches, Gragg should have been in Evanston when the school announced its decision to suspend Fitzgerald. Failing that, he should have caught the first plane back to Chicago following Saturday’s article. To still be absent on Monday was a very visible leadership failure.
Lesson 3: Your university’s crisis communications playbook shouldn’t just anticipate the most likely scandals. It needs to imagine worst-case scenarios.
By Monday afternoon, both The Daily Northwestern and the Chicago Tribune broke more news – the Daily reporting on allegations of the football program’s long history with racism and the Tribune reporting on the university’s baseball coach being the subject of an HR investigation for bullying and abusive behavior. (Sixteen baseball players – a significant portion of the roster –sought to transfer to another school following the 2023 season.)
The fact that bad news followed the initial hazing reports shouldn’t come as a surprise to any organization. A crisis attracts media attention and may give other victims the confidence to share their stories. A thorough crisis communications playbook should anticipate follow-on crises. Already reeling from one crisis on Monday afternoon, Northwestern appeared unequipped to handle a second related crisis.
By late afternoon Monday, President Schill addressed the football program in a letter to the community: Fitzgerald had been fired.
Schill’s message did some things well. For example, he took ownership of the initial decision to suspend Fitzgerald and acknowledged the seriousness of the hazing allegations. He also spoke to members of the university community who were strong supporters of Fitzgerald, acknowledging their feedback and the positive impact Fitzgerald had on many people. At the same time, Schill made it clear that Fitzgerald’s failing harmed the lives of individual players, damaged the reputation of the university and did not align with university values.
In other respects, the statement fell short, failing to address that afternoon’s reports of racism in the program and alleged problems with the university’s baseball program. (As of Wednesday afternoon, the school still hadn’t acknowledged the racism allegations or the issues surrounding its baseball program.)
Lesson 4: Consider key university stakeholders when crafting crisis communications.
While an open letter may be the most effective means of quickly disseminating information during a crisis, colleges and universities need to consider all of their stakeholders, including students, their parents, faculty and administration, alumni, individual and corporate donors, and the community where the university is located.
In a crisis, these groups will each have specific concerns that need to be addressed, and a one-size-fits-all approach seldom works.
Take, for example, Northwestern’s current football players, which likely would have wanted to learn about the future of the program and their playing careers. The university apparently called a team meeting on Monday night. Fitzgerald, accompanied by his wife and children, was in attendance. Athletic Director Gragg reportedly joined briefly via Zoom, with his camera off, and didn’t take questions from the team. President Schill was a no-show. How can the administration gain a team member’s trust when the most prominent voice in the room is that of the just-fired football coach?
Universities need to think holistically about their responses to these crises. It’s not enough to try to appease everyone with a single communication. Parents of athletes want to be reassured of their children’s safety. Season ticketholders may have questions about the upcoming season. Alumni may be concerned about the leadership’s ability to run the school and protect students, causing them to think twice before making annual donations or encouraging high school students to apply to Northwestern.
In Northwestern’s case, there has been silence since Monday evening’s announcement of Fitzgerald’s firing. No communication to alumni, donors or season ticketholders. No attempts to satisfy the local community, whose support is needed if the school is to win approval for a proposed $800 million football stadium rebuild. No public statements about the future of the baseball program. One possible explanation: The university’s Board of Trustees has halted any communication – which would typically come from the president or the athletic director – as it determines the fate of both men’s jobs. Still, in that case, the Board of Trustees should take the lead in communications.
Lesson 5: When your university has a journalism program, don’t underestimate the power of student journalists and the media as a whole.
Northwestern’s administration has only itself to be blamed for this crisis, and the student journalists at the Daily Northwestern deserve accolades for shining light on a story the school attempted to bury.
It’s also a reminder that if your university includes a journalism school, there’s a higher likelihood that any crisis will receive a heightened level of media scrutiny.
Northwestern’s football team went 1-11 last season. The firing of the coach of a team that is frequently subpar usually isn’t national news. But Fitzgerald’s firing was covered by high-profile national news outlets, including The New York Times (which announced the elimination of its sports desk on the same day), the Wall Street Journal and USA Today.
As The Athletic College Football Editor-in-Chief Stewart Mandel – also a Northwestern alum – wrote on Tuesday, “I’m continually astounded at how poorly universities manage crisis communications. Time after time after time, we see schools respond to scandals like this one by initially taking the path of least resistance, either ignorantly or obliviously failing to realize that the full story almost always comes out. And when it does, if it looks like you were trying to hide something, the public backlash will be swift and ferocious.”
We couldn’t have said it better.
Zach Olsen is president of Infinite Global, based in San Francisco. He leads the firm’s crisis response and reputation management group, including its work with educational institutions, and can be reached at email@example.com.
Jennifer King is a vice president at Infinite Global, based in Chicago. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, she has been a Northwestern football season ticketholder for nearly 30 years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.