PR: The Good, Bad and Ugly
Disaster Management: How the Heels Should Handle Academic Fraud Allegations
by Patty Briguglio on 08/20/2012
Kicking off the new school year in the middle of disaster management is probably not what the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill planned as part of the Fall 2012 semester. However when a transcript bearing former standout athlete Julius Peppers’ name surfaced last weekend, a disaster is exactly what the university got.
Although he was a star on the basketball court and football field at UNC from 1999 to 2001, Peppers did not shine in the classroom. Studying in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, Peppers had a marginal grade point average and at times risked losing his chance to play.
The controversial transcript, which includes Peppers’ name and academic history, was found on an obscure portal of the UNC website. The GPA listed there was 1.82 and featured 11 grades of D or F. This transcript does not match the one Peppers claims as his own, which instead reflects Bs or better in at least seven of the classes from the Department of African and Afro-American Studies.
The discrepancy suggests academic fraud on the part of the university, which would not confirm that the transcript belonged to Peppers but did admit that the record was a former student’s. While Peppers’ education and NCAA eligibility are now in question, the bigger issue is that UNC faces possibly the worst case of academic fraud in the institution’s history, and its leaders are not handling it properly.
University officials have had very little to say on the subject and have declined requests for interviews, hoping that this will just go away if they ignore it hard enough.
The reality is that they are prolonging this disaster by failing to address it. Instead of coming clean by admitting to the wrongdoing and working to correct the mistake, UNC is letting this get larger and gain more traction. In fact, this situation is now the subject of an investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation as well as the Board of Governors. The debacle looks like it will not fade away as the university hoped.
There are three key rules in crisis PR: tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth. UNC has failed to follow all three.
As part of disaster management and crisis PR, an effective response is critical, because silence can be the worst way to handle a crisis. UNC officials should have offered a full explanation of the transcript, including where it came from and how it came to be on the school’s website. They needed to respond to requests for interviews and offer honest, forthcoming answers to the media and public.
Burley Mitchell, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court and a member of the UNC system Board of Governors, has pointed out that it seems that all the information is coming to light through efforts by NC State University fans and the News & Observer, not the UNC administration. If there is more relevant and related information, UNC must be the one to offer it before other parties, especially their rivals, do it for them. Reacting to this is not enough – from this point forward, the university must own their mistakes and get to work cleaning them up.
How do you think UNC could have handled this situation more effectively?
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