maryland

When student athlete Jordan McNair collapsed during football practice at the University of Maryland last May, then died in the hospital a few weeks later, many wondered who, at the school, would take the blame. Months passed… yet nothing happened. Even as reports of rough treatment by the coaching staff and a so-called “no-quit” policy were leaked to the press, Maryland officials said little and did nothing.

As the 2018 college football season approached, strength and conditioning coach Rick Court resigned, leaving behind allegations of what many called “brutal treatment” of players under his charge. Then the season started, and nothing else happened. While boosters, fans, and the media wondered – and more than a few berated the board of regents for inactivity – nothing was done.

Pressure continued to mount as the team continued to compete. Then, finally, someone stepped up to make a statement about a situation that, plainly, was not going away. University of Maryland president Wallace Loh came out and said the university would not be firing head coach DJ Durkin.

The public erupted. Sports media could not believe it, and even many fans were outraged. PR pros sat back in disbelief. How could a major American university be so completely unaware, so oblivious to the message they were sending and the anger their lack of action was engendering?

This time, it took the board at Maryland less than 24 hours to hear the message they had been deaf to for several months. Loh came out the day after saying Durkin’s job was safe to announce that he had been fired. Most consider that to be the correct reaction, albeit a very late reaction.

The delay has now created yet more negative PR for the university. The school is in the middle of a season, making Durkin’s firing and the reason for it the top headline in every newscast about every single U of Maryland game for the rest of the season. Instead of avoiding the situation, the inaction by the board of regents and the uneven PR messaging has created what will likely be a steady stream of negative PR that will last at least through the rest of the year.

Now, some may argue, understandably, that the school had to go through proper protocol before it decided who to blame for McNair’s death. They did that. There was an investigation. It concluded in September and determined that trainers with the team “failed” the student athlete. The details of the report are damning, including the fact that it took someone more than an hour to call 911.

The report made it clear that the “culture” of the program contributed to the conditions that led to McNair’s death. Interviews with current players were harshly critical of the expectations of the coaching staff, which, ultimately, lands on the desk of the head coach.

When it looked like that wouldn’t happen, when Durkin returned to work after a leave of absence. Loh announced he would be retiring in protest. Some players refused to attend team meetings, and ESPN started looking into the issue, turning the story into national news.

In the end, from a PR perspective, the university allowed a tragic situation to turn into a PR nightmare due to stark failure to understand and manage expectations after the tragedy.

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Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5W Public Relations, one of the largest independently-owned PR firms in the United States. With over 20 years of experience crafting and executing powerful narratives, Torossian is one of America's most prolific and well-respected Public Relations professionals. Since founding 5WPR in 2003, he has led the company's growth, overseeing more than 175 professionals in the company's headquarters in midtown Manhattan. With clients spanning corporate, technology, consumer and crisis, in addition to digital marketing and public affairs capabilities, 5WPR is regularly recognized as an industry leader and has been named "PR Agency of the Year" by the American Business Awards on multiple occasions. Throughout his career, Torossian has worked with some of the world's most visible companies, brands and organizations. His strategic, resourceful approach has been recognized with numerous awards including being named the Stevie American Business Awards 2020 Entrepreneur of the Year, the American Business Awards PR Executive of the Year, twice over, an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year semi-finalist, Metropolitan Magazine's Most Influential New Yorker, and a 2020 Top Crisis Communications Professional by Business Insider. Torossian is known as one of the country's foremost experts on crisis communications, and is called on to counsel blue chip companies, top business executives and entrepreneurs both in the United States and worldwide. Torossian has lectured on crisis PR at Harvard Business School, appears regularly on CNN & CNBC, was named to PR Week's "40 under Forty" list, is a contributing columnist for Forbes and the New York Observer, and his book, "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results With Game-Changing Public Relations" is an industry best-seller. A NYC native, Torossian lives in Manhattan with his children. He is a member of Young Presidents Organization (YPO), and active in numerous charities.