Learning from Te’o and Notre Dame: Media Crisis Planning in the Age of Catfishing

, Posted on Mar 15


Throughout the 2012 college football season, fans cheered on Manti Te’o for his courage and ability to beat the emotional odds despite losing his grandma and girlfriend within a matter of hours. We applauded as he led Notre Dame’s football team to a near-perfect season. The story had the makings of the next “Rudy” movie. However, as the plot unfolded, we found out that not everything was as it seemed. Te’o, Notre Dame and the public fell victim to a fake-girlfriend hoax.

The team and the university’s reactive response to the unfolding story stands as a stark reminder for all organizations that they must be prepared and ready to respond in the wake of a media crisis. The longer we wait, the more that stories can take on a life of their own, with a ripple effect that can affect even the largest organizations.

Luckily, most companies will never have to face the media under these strange circumstances, but the situation brings to light some important policies to incorporate into any organization’s media crisis plan.

Establish Your Game Plan

It’s imperative to create a media response plan that is flexible for a variety of scenarios. The plan should provide direction and assign roles to leaders in the organization. It must clearly communicate to both internal and external audiences.

Timing is critical. As part of the plan, companies should establish processes to define messages and share them with the right audiences in the right order.

Practice Makes Perfect

There is no doubt that Te’o, like most major college athletes in the spotlight, almost certainly went through media training provided by Notre Dame. Setting up media training before a crisis with team members is vital for an organization’s reputation. A company that is prepared and comfortable in the media spotlight has a distinct advantage in getting their message out clearly and in a controlled manner.

There is no “I” in Team

During a media crisis, all spokespeople need to be united and supportive of the organization, delivering consistent messaging through all communication touch points. No one enjoys watching a player complain about his teammates after a loss. The same rule should be applied to your organization.

The best defense when facing a media crisis is a proactive, consistent and heartfelt offense, implemented through a media policy that outlines a tactical game plan for your company. While you probably won’t have a girlfriend hoax on your hands, every company has the potential for a single employee’s actions to impact the larger organization—for better or worse. Make sure you have a media plan in place that keeps your defense out of the red zone.