This week's first anniversary of the motorcycle wreck that changed Arkansas sports history provides a case study in crisis communication.
John Diamond, the University of Arkansas' associate vice chancellor for university relations, recently spoke to Arkansas Business about the process of crafting the 673-word speech that Athletic Director Jeff Long delivered when he announced that he’d fired the Razorbacks' popular and successful head football coach, Bobby Petrino.
Diamond also discussed the anniversary of the firing with the local chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. Diamond’s presentation was entitled: “A Hog Tail on the Pig Trail: Jeff, Bobby, Harley and Me.”
Long’s objective in that April 10, 2012, announcement was easy to identify.
The speech "had to be a categorical indictment of what occurred, so that by the end of Jeff’s announcement people would not question why he dismissed Bobby but would recognize he had no choice but to dismiss Bobby,” Diamond said.
Pulling it off was another matter entirely.
“If this had been handled improperly, this could have been another damaging blow to intercollegiate athletics," Diamond said. "… So from a communication standpoint it was important the message was clear."
Petrino had helped generate millions of dollars in revenue and national attention for the University of Arkansas football program in his four years as football coach. But he had also managed to generate negative attention, not just for the Athletic Department but also the university.
The police report of his April 1, 2012, motorcycle wreck with a female subordinate, Jessica Dorrell, as a passenger generated intense national attention, and it peeled the cover off a scandal that had been months in the making.
Long fired Petrino for covering up an affair with Dorrell, whom he had hired over 150 other candidates who applied. But he didn’t have much time to defend his decision.
Long delivered his speech in about eight minutes during a nationally televised media event held just hours after he fired the coach, who was believed to have an ironclad contract and an $18 million buyout.
Preparing that message began even before the end of the investigation. Diamond said Long recognized quickly that involving the UA communications staff was critical. While Long didn’t base his final decision on Petrino’s fate on how it would play in the press, he was aware that he needed a public relations perspective on a saga that had become local and national media fodder.
“It was clear that, no matter how it played out, this would be a national story,” Diamond said. “When the first satellite truck arrived, it really underscored that point.”
So Long frequently met with Diamond, Athletic Department spokesman Kevin Trainor and other UA administrators to update them on his investigation. When it came time to craft the speech, Long provided the general ideas of what he wanted included and Diamond and his staff handled the wordsmithing.
“We were able to give him feedback, especially on the points that were most salient. He had given us all the elements,” Diamond said. “All we had to do was structure it in a way that presented it as succinctly as possible.”
In the end, Long earned national praise for how he handled the situation. And there were other benefits. The Donald W. Reynolds Foundation gave the Athletic Department a $1 million donation, citing Long’s “courageous leadership.”
And perhaps most importantly, the incident indirectly led to the hiring of Petrino's replacement, Bret Bielema of Wisconsin. Bielema had written Long last year complimenting the athletic director on his handling of the incident. Long has credited the note for putting Bielema on his radar as a possible option to replace Petrino.