Anatomy of a PR fumble
How Ohio State screwed up the press conference for Tattoo-gate Part II.
OSU football coach Jim Tressl not apologizing at the Jack Nicklaus Museum March 8. Photo by Eric Lyttle.
Set aside for a moment all the holes in Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel’s story about why he didn’t disclose to his bosses that he knew about Tattoo-gate. And that he displayed an alarming affection for exclamation points in those now famous e-mail exchanges with the attorney who tipped him to his players turning OSU memorabilia into cash and tats (“I hear you!!” “It’s unbelievable!!” “Go Bucks!!”).
Instead, focus on how Ohio State chose to do damage control. Or, as it turned out, how it didn’t do damage control. The case in point was the pivotal press conference March 8 at the Jack Nicklaus Museum on Ohio State’s west campus. Yahoo! Sports broke a story the day before, citing a source saying Tressel knew that his players sold or traded their Big Ten championship rings and other stuff to tattoo parlor owner Eddie Rife in April. That was eight months before OSU announced to the world key players, including quarterback Terrelle Pryor, would sit out five games in 2011 (but not the Sugar Bowl) for their transgressions.
If the story were true, Tressel would be in huge trouble, maybe even lose his job, and the university could take a big hit to its reputation. Indeed, the story was accurate. And the press conference was OSU’s chance to minimize the pain.
You had to like the university’s chances of walking away with as little mud as possible when it sent its three biggest guns to acknowledge Tressel’s secret: Tressel himself, OSU athletic director Gene Smith and university president Gordon Gee. All are considered at the top of their professions (which, these days, includes a heavy dose of media/public relations), with Gee, in particular, a master at clear, concise and effective communication. And as Bruce Hooley, writing for Fox Sports Ohio, later pointed out, they collectively represent $7 million in annual salaries. For that kind of investment, you’d figure they could handle the job.
By most accounts, the presser made things worse. Tressel, while speaking somberly, never said he was sorry. In fact, he remarked, “I don’t think less of myself at this moment.” His explanations left a lot of folks feeling puzzled or worse. If this was supposed to be the public apology part of his school-induced punishment (in addition to a two-game suspension and $250,000 fine), he clearly would have to do it again. (The following week, Tressel apologized at a speaking engagement in Canton and then requested three more games be added to his suspension.) Smith and Gee, spewing a tidal wave of praise for Tressel, came across as if they were announcing a contract extension for the coach instead of a violation of NCAA rules. Then Gee made the biggest flub: When asked by a reporter whether he considered firing Tressel, he shot back: “Are you kidding? Let me just be very clear. I’m just hopeful the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”
On one hand, it was classic Gee: self-deprecating humor to ease the tension in the room; anyone who has spent time with him has heard something similar many times. On the other hand, though, it was very unGeelike. The timing was terrible, as if he’d suddenly gone tone deaf. His quip gave critics a big club to pummel the university, which has worked hard to diminish its image as a football factory, over who and what really runs OSU.
The fallout was quick and harsh. Sports columnists used that club to start bashing away, especially noting Gee’s joke (or “joke” as some portrayed it). Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel wrote, “The ‘extenuating circumstances’ Ohio State is trotting out in his defense are simply not believable. But you wouldn’t know it by the way [Smith and Gee] spoke. . . .” And ESPN.com’s Mark Schlabach added: “On Tuesday night, we learned Tressel isn’t any different from a lot of coaches in college football. He’s apparently more concerned about winning games and championships than following rules and doing things the right way. In fact, Tressel might be even worse than other coaches who are corrupting college athletics. He won’t admit he’s wrong even after he has been caught.”
Even Jena McGregor, who writes a leadership column for the Washington Post, used the press conference as an example of “the danger of sticking by your stars.” She wrote: “No leader or employee, no matter how beloved, how great of a performer or how integral to an organization’s success, should be given unconditional support. . . . Tressel may be an Ohio State icon, but it’s Smith’s and Gee’s job to remember that even stars fall to Earth, and have to play by the rules.”
So what went wrong? Columbus Monthly asked communications experts for their opinions. (OSU declined interview requests for this story.)
Overall, their comments perhaps are understatedly summed up best by Marcy Fleisher, a former Channel 10 reporter who now runs her own PR firm. “It didn’t go exactly as planned,” she says with a laugh. And Fleisher wonders if an OSU communications person was “passing out” during the press conference.
Another media professional was more direct. “It was an absolute disaster.” (Although it should be noted that one PR pro, Lisa Griffin, says, “Under a difficult situation, they did a good job.”)
The biggest problem was tone, with Gee’s flip comment leading the pack, as well as too much praise for Tressel. “I think it projected around the country that Ohio State wasn’t taking this very seriously,” says Robin Yocum, a former Dispatch reporter and corporate communications executive who now runs his own public relations business. (Yocum once was a freelance contributor to Columbus Monthly.)
The root of the trouble, Fleisher says, is the approach Smith and Gee embraced. “They went in thinking, ‘We are a united front and we are behind this coach, period.’ I think the theme should have been, ‘We understand the seriousness. . . .’ ”
Fleisher has much to say about Tressel’s fumbles. “He talked in a lot of circles,” she says. “What that created was even more questions, which was the last thing they needed at that point.” Though Tressel’s explanation seemed implausible, she says, “There had to have been a better way to have presented that.” She suggests: “Listen, I’m not a lawyer. I’m a football coach. Should I have sought counsel? You bet. That was a mistake.”
His word choice was off, too, especially since he kept saying “probably.” She says, “I would have counseled him to say, ‘I should have done this. I should have done that.’ It’s a slight change in wording, but there is a difference.”
She adds, “Jim Tressel is a smart guy. He didn’t appear so smart at that news conference and that rang a little false.”
Others noted it looked as if Smith, Gee and Tressel were unprepared. Yes, the Yahoo! story only broke the day before, but communications experts say they should have known a leak was likely and planned accordingly. And there’s debate on who should have attended the press conference. Some think Gee shouldn’t have shown up. Yocum suggests the university would have done better to keep Tressel out of the press conference and made him available later to reporters. Yocum speculates that it was “tough for Gee to express the seriousness of the violation with Tressel sitting right next to him. I think that was probably at the center of what went wrong with that press conference.”
Fleisher disagrees: “It would have looked as if he was hiding.”
Veteran communications strategist David Milenthal has spent the past 30 years putting out media fires in politics, public affairs and business. He has long-standing ties with Ohio State, but he wasn’t involved in the school’s Tattoo-gate PR response. Still, from the outside, it appears to him that the university missed a chance to turn around its Football Factory image. “There are very few times when the lights of the national media shine on you,” he says. “Even if they are shining on you initially for a very bad reason, you do have a chance to use that to show who you are, what your core is about, what your soul is about.”
Milenthal is afraid the university’s overall reputation is at risk. “This situation has the danger of further building the image of this as a football school before anything else,” he says. He praises Gee for building Ohio State’s academics in recent years, but his ill-timed quip and the leniency he showed toward Tressel could harm those efforts. “What’s important here is Gordon Gee and the university, not Jim Tressel, not the athletic department,” Milenthal says. “I know they bring in a lot of money. But it’s time to focus on building a great medical school and building a great academic institution.”
Yet all hope is not lost, says Milenthal. The press conference was just one event in what is sure to be a long-running media soap opera, and he says the university can recover with decisive action. “I still think they have a terrific chance to use this to actually make a statement where people say, ‘Wow, this university has a helluva lot of integrity. It’s a place I want to go. It cares more about academics than just football.’ ”
On March 17, OSU appeared to try to do just that by accepting Tressel’s idea for the additional suspension.
Dave Ghose is an associate editor for and Ray Paprocki is the editor of Columbus Monthly.