Leadership in a Time of Crisis: Jim Tressel's Ousting from The Ohio State University

Leadership in a Time of Crisis: Jim Tressel's Ousting from The Ohio State University

Lauren J. Keil (Advisory Board Consulting and Management, USA) and Angela M. Jerome (Western Kentucky University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-9970-0.ch009
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When faced with crises organizational leaders must identify, prioritize, and communicate with organizational stakeholders. Increasingly, organizational leaders find themselves responding to crises made by persons that represent or are associated with the organization in some way. However, most case studies of image repair campaigns focus on the individual that has transgressed rather than on the often simultaneous campaigns undertaken by the organizations with which they are associated. To study these issues more closely, this chapter uses The Ohio State University's (OSU's) tattoos for memorabilia scandal as exemplar and offers meaningful insight and pragmatic considerations for practitioners dealing with similar situational constraints.
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Image repair1 undeniably operates at the intersection of organizational leadership, conflict resolution, and conflict management. In times of crisis organizational leaders must identify, prioritize, and communicate with stakeholders. As Rawlins (2006) asserted, stakeholder prioritization, regardless of public relations task, is most often based on audiences’ legitimacy, power, and urgency. Research indicates that post-crisis audience prioritization can be particularly troubling for organizational leaders for a number of reasons. For example, Benoit (2014) warned:

It is important to keep in mind that a person or organization accused of wrongdoing may want to persuade more than one audience; we must also realize that the individuals in one specific audience can have varied attitudes. These situations can make image repair more challenging, but it is a mistake to ignore these realities when they arise. (p. 123)

Jerome’s (2008) case study of NASCAR driver Tony Stewart’s image repair campaign demonstrated the nuanced care that must be taken by organizational leaders to successfully respond to diverse audiences following a crisis. She observed that Home Depot’s (Stewart’s primary sponsor) decision to fine Stewart for his transgression, rather than suspend/fire him, before stakeholder reactions to the crisis could be accurately gauged, functioned to signal Home Depot’s derision with Stewart for stakeholders who felt some punishment was warranted while, at the same time, allowing it to avoid backlash from stakeholders who felt suspension/termination was not warranted.

While case studies do not produce generalizable results, Seeger (2006) argued that one may generate a list of best practices by generalizing “from other forms of communication” and extrapolating “from the now considerable body of largely case-based research in crisis communication” (p. 233-234). For example, he asserted that multiple case studies illustrate the value of communicating with honesty, candor, and openness in post-crisis messages. Likewise, Benoit (2014) concluded that lying is never an effective image repair strategy because, “if the truth emerges and the original accusations are shown to be true, the accused now has an additional problem” (p. 124).

Benoit (2014) illustrated the lessons that may be learned from case studies of image repair in five areas: sports/entertainment, corporate, political, international, and third party. The studies appearing in Blaney, Lippert, and Smith’s (2013) collection, Repairing the Athlete’s Image, also focus on the lessons that can be learned from image repair campaigns conducted in a sports context. However, most case studies done in this area focus on the image repair campaigns of individuals who have transgressed rather than on the, often simultaneous, campaigns undertaken by the organizations that the transgressor represents or with which he/she is associated. For example, when student-athletes/coaches violate NCAA rules, laws, and ethical mores, the colleges/universities that govern them often have to mount their own image repair campaigns. In doing so, the colleges/universities often face complex stakeholder dichotomies. When this occurs, the organization has to decide whether it should fine/suspend/terminate the, often beloved, coach or student-athlete(s) accused. Further, the organization must evaluate how its decisions may help/harm the institution’s image in the eyes of its fans and NCAA officials that often have differing opinions on the issue.

A few studies (e.g., Fortunato, 2008; Sisler, 2015) illuminate the value of inquiry that places primacy on the image repair campaigns of organizational leaders who are forced to mount image repair campaigns resulting from actions perpetrated by the athletes representing their organizations. However, additional studies are warranted. The current study examines the image repair campaign undertaken by the leadership of The Ohio State University (OSU) following its tattoos for memorabilia scandal. Further, it offers pragmatic considerations and recommendations for practitioners dealing with similar situational constraints.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Good Intentions: An attempt to decrease the egregiousness of an act by arguing that it was undertaken with goodwill.

Transcendence: An attempt to move past a crisis by appealing to higher values.

NCAA: The National Collegiate Athletic Association, governing body of Division 1-3 collegiate athletics programs.

Crisis: An event that threatens the image of an actor with key stakeholders.

Bolstering: Listing the positive actions of actors in a crisis.

Apologia: The act of rhetorical defense undertaken following an event that threatens one’s image.

Renewal: A rhetorical strategy undertaken to capitalized on the lessons learned from a crisis.

Minimization: A strategy used by those in crisis that attempts to decrease the perceived harm done.

Differentiation: A statement showing the difference between the current crisis and one that could have been much worse.

Corrective Action: Taking steps to ensure similar events/acts will not take place in the future.

Image Repair: An attempt to restore or transform one’s image following a crisis.

Defeasibility: An argument made by an actor that focuses on his/her ignorance of the event/act pre-crisis.

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