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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Duke Case: Crisis Management & the Internet

Duke President Richard "Brutus" Brodhead's handling of the Duke lacrosse scandal can be used as a case study to demonstrate how not to manage a crisis. There are a long list of things that Brodhead did to make the lacrosse team look guilty of involvement in a criminal conspiracy and hurt the public image of Duke.

One small aspect of Duke's mishandling of this crisis has been forgotten, but at the time it seemed significant, at least to The Johnsville News. That was the Duke administration's decision to remove the men's lacrosse team roster and individual player profiles and photos from the Duke sports website (GoDuke.com). GoDuke.com is the official site of Duke University athletics.


Image of Duke lacrosse team webpage from March 2006

That decision was apparently made on or about March 25th. On March 25th, Duke University Director of Athletics Joe Alleva announced that the men’s lacrosse team would forfeit its game against Georgetown as well as the next game with Mount St. Mary’s. The statement said:

"I am dismayed by the party on March 13 held by members of the men’s lacrosse team at an off campus residence," Alleva said. "The Durham Police’s investigation of the matter continues and we await its results.

"The players deny the criminal allegations. We understand that to date, no one has been charged with any crime. We continue to monitor the situation and will respond accordingly to further developments as the facts become known....
Richard Brodhead also issued a statement that day:
Applauds decision by athletic director and urges cooperation with police investigation while noting need to establish facts

Physical coercion and sexual assault are unacceptable in any setting and have no place at Duke. The criminal allegations against three members of our men’s lacrosse team, if verified, will warrant very serious penalties. The facts are not yet established, however, and there are very different versions of the central events. No charges have been filed, and in our system of law, people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. We also know that many members of the team, including some who were asked to provide DNA samples, did not attend the party....
The dailytarheel.com added:
Brodhead stressed that the university's reputation might not be hurt by the allegations.

"Universities show their mettle by how they respond to such circumstances, not by their ability to prevent these things from ever happening," he said.

Duke Athletics Director Joe Alleva said the team roster has been removed from goduke.com, the department's Web site, so that team members would not be harassed.
Duke took down the team roster listing the names, heights, weights, class year, hometowns, and previous schools of the players. They also removed the individual player pictures from their website. They said it was done "so that team members would not be harassed."

However, the act of removing the player information from their website guaranteed that the players would be harassed even more. Now everyone wanted to know who these men were. The Duke rapist hunt was further inflamed.

Brodhead and Duke did not show their mettle. They panicked.

The website removal was just one small long forgotten action by Brodhead's administration, but it struck some observers, including The Johnsville News, as an act of an institution trying to cover up a crime. Why do innocent men need to hide their names and pictures? This is a certainly a debatable action that Duke took, and it's a decision that should be analyzed.

One small technical problem, that lame strategy does not usually work on the internet. Once information is on the internet it's almost impossible to take it back. The Duke lacrosse team information was already in the web caches of some internet search engines, ready to be retrieved and put back on the internet.1 Which is what immediately happened. So what did Duke accomplish by taking down the lacrosse team information? That action just made it appear that the entire team was possibly guilty of doing something bad. It added to the perception of guilt that was building in Durham, stoked by the local news organs and the public security apparatus.

Those pictures from the Duke website were the same ones used for that infamous "wanted poster" that started circulating all over Duke and Durham. Crimestoppers had the web info and pictures. The police investigators also had the website information and were using it to put together their initial photo lineups for the alleged victim.

However, going back and looking at it from the Duke administration's point-of-view, were they caught in a legal "Catch 22." If they did not remove the team information from their website could they have later been sued by the players and their families for not attempting to protect their student's privacy? What if one of their players had been assaulted or worse? The "witch-hunting" mob mentality was running loose in Durham in late March.

Additionally, if a crime had been committed by several of the players, do the innocent players have some legal right to have their names and pictures completely disassociated from the involved parties? Does not our traditional right to a presumption of innocence require those actions wait until a jury has rendered a verdict? Conversely, could the indicted players and their families sue if an institution treated them unfairly and cast doubt on their presumption of innocence and thus hurt their legal position?

Getting even more specific, should Duke have just removed some of the player's individual information that was listed: height, weight, and photos? If they did, does that not also taint the team and imply concealment? Again, that information is already available and part of the public domain. If Duke keeps the information online they can at least utilize it to draw interested internet user's attention to their official position regarding the matter.

Should Duke have left all the lacrosse team web pages and information online and simply amended them with some official statement regarding the presumption of the "team's" innocence? Legal and public relations experts are probably better prepared to discuss all of this and crisis management strategies involving the internet.

One interesting side question regarding the team is whether the Duke men's lacrosse roster for 2006-07, if it is posted, should symbolically include the names of Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty? Seligmann and Finnerty, who would have been juniors on the 2006-7 team, are techically on a leave of absence from the university. The current coach, John Danowski, has reportedly made an effort to call and introduce himself to them.

This is a topic that seems ripe for further discussion, more thoughts will probably come up. What do you think? Given the world as it is, should Duke have taken down the lacrosse team information from their website?

Every educational institution might take an interest in this debate. These crisis management questions will remain long after this hoax and a case built on "fantastic lies" are history.


Create polls and vote for free. dPolls.com

later:
Ooops..sorry for the typo, the poll question is "No, amend with presumption..."

It would be interesting to hear what the players themselves thought thought of this action. Did it add to their feeling of being abandoned by the school? Or would they feel safer? Should the players and their families been part of the decision making process?

even later:
The poll is closed. Just imagine how Duke would have handled this crisis if it had involved the men's basketball team instead of the lacrosse team. Do you think the administration's response would have been the same?

sources:
Duke Announces Forfeiture Of Men’s Lacrosse Games [duke.edu, March 25, 2006]
Statement by President Richard H. Brodhead on Duke Men’s Lacrosse Team [duke.edu, March 25, 2006]
Duke lacrosse season on hold [dailytarheel.com, Mar. 29, 2006]

notes:
1 There are some indications that Duke may now be trying to block search engine access and caching of their goduke.com website throught their use of the robot.txt file. The feasibility of that strategy will be left to the experts.

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