by Steve Adubato, PhD
The Rutgers fiasco continues to provide crisis communication lessons. The disclosure that newly named RU men’s basketball coach Eddie Jordan was not actually a Rutgers graduate was embarrassing enough, but it pales in comparison to the Julie Hermann debacle.
Hermann was named athletic director at Rutgers to replace Tim Pernetti, who was fired by Rutgers president Robert Barchi in connection with former RU basketball coach Mike Rice’s video scandal.
When Julie Hermann was introduced to the public by Barchi, she looked like she came straight out of central casting for athletic directors—telegenic, charismatic, and a strong communicator who was saying all the right things about how coaches must conduct themselves at Rutgers.
But as the world now knows, there were some skeletons in Hermann’s closet that the Rutgers’ vetting process apparently missed. What’s worse is that when The Star-Ledger reported about two of the most embarrassing black marks from Hermann’s past, her initial communication in response to these allegations was pathetic.
The first was a 1997 letter signed by virtually every former player on the University of Tennessee volleyball team, coached by Hermann, alleging “mental cruelty” and being “publicly humiliated” by their coach. Hermann resigned her coaching post immediately after a meeting with every player who signed the letter claiming that the coach used such terms as “alcoholic” and “whore” to describe them. Hermann’s initial reaction when confronted by the media was to say that she couldn’t recall such a letter or resigning under those circumstances. Said Hermann; “I never heard any of this, never name-calling them or anything like that whatsoever…None of this is familiar to me.” Really?
Further, Hermann was also confronted by The Star-Ledger and other media organizations about her former assistant coach, Ginger Hineline, who was fired from her job after accusing Hermann of telling her not to get pregnant because it would get in the way of her coaching responsibilities. In a court case, which was ultimately settled with a $150,000 jury verdict in favor of Hineline, there was video of Hermann at Hineline’s wedding making such statements about the assistant coach. Hermann first denied being at the wedding (even though she was a bridesmaid), saying; “Was I at her wedding?...I don't even remember that, honestly…I can't picture standing at her wedding...” Then when told video existed of her at the wedding, Hermann responded; “There's a video? I’m sorry, did you say there's a video? There's no video, trust me.” Last Sunday, The Star-Ledger printed a front page photo of Hermann as a bridesmaid with the bride, Hineline.
Ultimately, video of Hermann at Hineline’s wedding went viral with her on tape saying; “I hope it's good tonight...but I hope it's not too good, because I don't want you to come back February with any surprises, you know, the office and all, and it would be hard to have a baby in there.” Ouch.
Julie Hermann was absolutely clueless as to how to handle this crisis communication situation. By denying the existence of a video tape, and saying she couldn’t recall being in the wedding or a scathing letter written by her former players—she looked dishonest.
Rule #1 in crisis communication—never say something unless you know it is true. Another rule is to proactively disclose “bad news” before someone else does so that you can potentially frame your communication in a more favorable light. In this case, by NOT disclosing what she had to know would ultimately become public, particularly in the age of social media, Hermann put herself on the defensive and in the position to either deny, defend or explain.
While Rutgers has made continuous institutional mistakes in its public communication since the Mike Rice video went public, Julie Hermann’s recent lack of candor has become a classic case destined for the individual crisis communication hall of shame.