Elasticity’s ‘Authentically Inauthentic’ blog series explores an array of branding blunders and highlights the importance of authenticity in the digital world.
Ohio State University head football coach Urban Meyer had been expected to lead his team on the sidelines for the Buckeyes’ season-opener on September 1, against Oregon State. Instead, he will watch from the comfort of his home.
For those who missed the recent embarrassment of a college football saga, Ohio State announced last Wednesday that Meyer would serve a three-game suspension without pay for mishandling information that now-former assistant coach Zach Smith abused his wife.
As damaging as the situation had already become for the university, after flubbing an opportunity to speak authentically at a prior media day, Meyer added kerosene to the already-blazing PR firestorm during a press conference held in response to the suspension.
When given the stage, the deeply respected coach hung his head, nonchalantly grabbed the podium, and proceeded to read a pre-written statement — dripping with force-fed legalese — to the media, fans, and other stakeholders with about as much care as a hungover college student at an early morning lecture. At a time when there is a white-hot spotlight on women’s rights in America due to the #MeToo movement, the highest-paid public employee in the state of Ohio managed to conceal any semblance of emotion, genuine care for the victim of Smith’s violence and avoid eye contact throughout the entirety of his nationally-broadcasted address.
We understand why Meyer said what he said and how he said it — the university’s lawyers likely didn’t give him any other option. Thus, a fair amount of shame should fall on Ohio State President Michael V. Drake and his administration. Nevertheless, Meyer’s platitudes, and the carelessness with which he spoke them, were simply a reputational disaster.
The coach flippantly apologized to “Buckeye nation,” and said the suspension was “tough.” Worse, when asked whether Zach Smith, whose wife was bruised from abuse, deserved to lose his job, Meyer responded: “I trust and support our president.”
What a relief, Urban.
It was clear during the presser that Meyer was not mentally present, as he repeatedly asked reporters to repeat their questions, including the most pivotal question of the entire press conference:
“What message do you have for Courtney Smith?”
Meyer responded, “I’m sorry that we’re in this situation…and um…I’m just sorry we’re in this situation.”
Swing and a miss.
Some Buckeye sympathizers claim that Meyer wasn’t aware of the domestic assault allegations against his assistant coach (although the evidence strongly suggests otherwise). But even if that was true, Meyer is undeniably the face of Ohio State football — and arguably the entire university — and owes it to the institution not to act like a 10-year-old who got asked to stand in front of the class and apologize for taking an extra cookie from the lunch line.
Along with whomever prepared his slapdash statement, the coach obviously forgot that public relations is often not about what you say, but what people hear and how they receive that information.
Ohio State and its formerly darling of a football coach had an opportunity to showcase poise, leadership and maturity, which he is paid $8 million to do. Instead, he turned defensive and bitter. He had an opportunity to mention Courtney Smith by name and denounce domestic abuse; instead he made himself the victim. Not only did Urban Meyer fail to say Courtney Smith’s name, a reporter had to bring it up for him.
Some PR veterans might suggest that in the midst of a scandal, public figures should play it safe so as not to stir the pot or reaffirm the public’s negative perception. But with three weeks to prepare a statement after the scandal went public, you’d think the media relations team at one of the largest universities in the U.S. that has one of the most dominant collegiate sports empires could muster up something more authentic than what was put on display last week.
Meyer was, and still is, responsible for not only the reputation of Ohio State football, but for his own personal reputation. And now the memory of Meyer’s flippant remarks about one of today’s most sensitive issues will be seared into the minds of millions of football fans.
If there’s anything Urban Meyer should be thankful for, it’s his three National Championships and his 90 percent win percentage at Ohio State — because any other coach that failed to report domestic violence, and subsequently gave such an authentically inauthentic response, would’ve been canned.