It’s been a tough week for Rick Pitino. And what a contrast with his arch-rival, John Calipari: While Cal got to pal around with the Pope, the University of Louisville basketball coach was forced to respond to the release of a new book that alleges a former assistant paid prostitutes to have sex with Cardinal players and recruits.
While Pitino and U of L athletic director Tom Jurich wisely jumped out in front of the story, holding a press conference in which they conveyed both their disappointment and determination to obtain the truth, this crisis appears far from resolved. The salacious nature of the accusations — combined with Pitino’s own personal history with sex scandal — is irresistible manna from the zeitgeist heavens for both the mainstream media and the blogosphere. And it’s widely expected that new revelations (texts, pictures, videos) will feed the talking head and tweeting beasts for weeks to come. Pitino’s current vow of silence about the Cardinal sins may not be sustainable.
Worse, these allegations could prove more than simply embarrassing to the ball coach. If there is any modicum of truth behind them, not only could U of L team eligibility be implicated, but criminal charges could also potentially be filed.
While I find myself, like much of KSR Nation, instinctively rooting against the Cards at every opportunity, I’ve moved past my hard feelings toward Rick personally, choosing instead to remember his role in restoring our Cats to greatness. In that spirit, I’ve gathered my team of recovering politicians: With crisis management skills forged as former targets of the piercing glare of the national media spotlight, we advise clients on managing and surviving public crises like this. Below, my colleagues share guidance from their own painful experiences, as well as a few of our twelve step mantras to counsel Coach Pitino:
Be First to Frame Your Narrative in Your Own Voice, with Facts and Sincerity
Michael Steele, the former Republican National Chairman, can sympathize with Pitino’s particular circumstances: Steele found himself embroiled in a high-profile national sex scandal when he discovered that an underling had used the Party’s credit card to pay for entertainment at a lesbian-bondage-themed strip club. Steele survived the crisis by stepping out early before the cameras with a candid explanation for the circumstances, and a sincere rebuke of the staffer who created the mess.
Steele suggests the same approach for Pitino: “Never sell short the power of getting in front of a narrative,” Steele advises. “The coach will likely find himself with a lot of lawyers telling him not to say anything, ‘Let us do the talking.’ But hunkering down behind legalese can be very harmful to your interests and your reputation.”
If indeed Pitino was not involved in the wrongdoing, Steele recommends that he is clear not only about his own innocence, but also his disapproval: “He needs to let the public know that he is as outraged and disgusted by this behavior as everyone else. He cannot look like he is protecting the wrongdoers or the institution.” Steele recommends that Pitino be strong and resolute: “He needs to let folks know his willingness to get to the bottom of things, that he wants to straighten this out more than anyone else. Most of all, that he recognizes the severity — that these athletes are teenagers, somebody’s sons — and the actions taken toward them are offensive.”
Own Your Own Mistakes, Take Responsibility and Sincerely Say “I’m Sorry”
Former Missouri House Speaker Rod Jetton found his political career derailed by a sex scandal that resembled Pitino’s 2009-10 imbroglio: He was accused of wrongdoing by a woman with whom he had engaged in a consensual sexual relationship. Ultimately, the charges were dropped, but Jetton’s path toward career rehabilitation was aided by the personal responsibility he assumed, and the sincere contrition he showed, for putting himself in the compromising position that led to the charges.
Jetton sees a similar path for the coach: “Pitino might not know of anything like this going on — I sure hope that’s the case,” Jetton states. “But even if he wasn’t directly involved, he was ultimately responsible for hiring and supervising the assistant who did this awful stuff.”
Jetton urges Pitino to sincerely apologize for his actions and inactions that ultimately resulted in the malfeasance: “Saying ‘I’m sorry’ — and saying it with true and honest conviction — is the first step to recovery,” Jetton argues. “Pitino has to admit where he was wrong, and own up to his mistakes. People can forgive a sinner. They can’t forgive someone who refuses to take responsibility for his program.”
Lean Into, and Learn from, Your Crisis
Former Kentucky Secretary of State John Y. Brown, III never experienced public scandal in politics, avoiding it perhaps because of the lessons learned from his youth. At 22, Brown was battling the bitter demons of alcoholism, but now three decades clean and sober, he uses what he learned in his lowest moments to help mentor and counsel others through struggles with addiction and other challenges.
Brown suggests that anyone coping with a public crisis must acknowledge clearly that he has learned from his own mistakes, as well as the mistakes of others in his charge: “If wrongdoing is uncovered, it must be acknowledged and addressed head on — in fact, embraced as a defining event; and immediate action must be taken to rectify damage done, and sweeping concrete steps taken, to ensure it cannot happen again.”
Brown also advises complete openness and honesty as a clear signal to the public that you understand the underlying message: “As a general rule, when serious allegations are made against a person or institution and any parts seem credible, a response is required of complete candor, transparency and full cooperation with an unwavering commitment to see where the facts lead. If this is done, the public will usually withold judgment until the facts bear out what actually happened and didn’t happen.”
Tell the Truth: Don’t Even Go Near the Line
Smith was involved in a minor wrongful campaign finance scheme that if discovered would have likely resulted in a small fine and an embarrassing news story. But when he signed a false affidavit about the incident — and was caught admitting it on a wire worn by his best friend — Smith was forced to serve a year and a day in federal prison.
Smith strongly urges Pitino to learn from his own example; and if the coach was aware of any element of the wrongdoing, even a small one, he can’t expect others to take full responsibility: “As I learned painfully, one way or another, the truth always comes out,” notes Smith. “That’s because if an organizational leader knew about something, at least one other person below him/her knows that he knew it. Probably more than one. And if the leader was involved in a decision in any way, the subordinates will likely feel compelled to talk, eventually. Whether for legal, moral, psychological, or reputational reasons, they may seek to minimize their own culpability by revealing or even exaggerating the leader’s. As tempting as it may be for a leader to hope that his case will be different, and his secret will remain hidden, the odds are not good.”
Smith concludes that the coach must clear the air immediately, forcefully and completely: “That’s not to say Pitino is guilty of anything, but if he knew anything about this, he should say so immediately. And even if he truly didn’t, he still should take responsibility as the head coach and organizational leader.”