Necessity of Seizing the Narrative in the Early Hours of a Crisis 


The early hours of a crisis can make or break an organization’s reputation. In those crucial hours, you either take control of the narrative, or someone else takes it from you.

There’s no better example than what’s happening at Northwestern University (“NU”) right now. On July 7 the university quietly announced it had completed a months-long third-party investigation into alleged hazing within the NU football program. NU also released an executive summary of findings from the investigation.

It appears NU was attempting what’s known in public relations circles as a “Friday news dump.” Historically, you issue news releases on Friday afternoons when newsrooms and the public at large just want the weekend to start. If the strategy works, by Monday everyone has moved on.

Kudos, though, to the journalism students at The Daily Northwestern. They dug into the story and on Saturday published the shocking account of a former NU football player detailing hazing that had allegedly been part of the football program for years.

Over the following several days, as the story broadened and drove national headlines and social media posts, NU leadership communicated exclusively through statements. They let others take the narrative from them. And now, the university is reeling from a reputational crisis that it seems ill-equipped to recover from. Things are spinning out of control. In a few days time:

  • NU went from suspending Head Football Coach Pat Fitzgerald to firing him.
  • Fitzgerald retained a prominent Chicago attorney and doesn’t intend to leave without a fight.
  • While some current and former players have risen to Fitzgerald’s defense, others have come forward to apparently validate problems in the program.
  • A Chicago sports radio station has reported a “toxic culture” within NU’s baseball program.
  • A number of NU football recruits have decommitted from joining the program.

From a crisis communications perspective, there are a few principles the university should’ve applied from the outset, and things could have been different. These principles apply to any company or organization facing a crisis.

  1. Own the narrative. Rather than a Friday news dump, NU should’ve planned to face the media and take questions about the third party report. They had months to prepare, and yet seemed fully unprepared to engage.
  2. Reinforce reforms. In the executive summary, NU does include its plans to implement reforms so this type of situation doesn’t occur again. But those reforms have been lost in the conversation because NU didn’t own the narrative.
  3. Show remorse. NU hasn’t contested the core facts of the story. But neither has the university come across as having any real regret that the alleged hazing occurred at all. The university appears to be bracing to defend itself in the court of law, but is sacrificing its reputation in the court of public opinion as a result.
  4. Follow through. As the story evolves, NU has had opportunities to reclaim the narrative. University leaders should still participate in media interviews and face the tough questions that would come their way.

This last point is particularly important. When organizations in crisis stay on the metaphorical sidelines, the void is filled by others who want to share their perspectives. We see this happening with NU, and suggest it’s a lesson for any organization dealing with a crisis.

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