How Not to Apologize

Robert Barchi Rutgers University President Robert Barchi managed to make a bad situation infinitely worse yesterday with his tone-deaf and arrogant news conference addressing his men’s basketball team scandal.

To recap the timeline: in November 2012, the team’s director of player development brought Rutgers Athletic Director Tim Pernetti dozens of video clips showing Coach Mike Rice engaging in abusive behavior toward his players during team practices: pushing them, kicking them, throwing basketballs at their heads, yelling homophobic slurs at them. After seeing this, Pernetti and other university officials decided not to terminate Rice, but to fine him and put him on probation. President Barchi says he didn’t bother to watch the video at the time because he relied on the judgment of his administrators and trusted their decision.

Fast-forward to this past Tuesday, April 2. ESPN airs the offending video, the public erupts with shock and disgust, President Barchi finally gets around to viewing the video himself, and Coach Rice resigns the following day, April 3. Two days later on April 5, Barchi holds a news conference to address the issues publicly.

Right from his opening statement, I had the sinking feeling that Barchi was taking the wrong approach. He did apologize, but he said the whole debacle was “a failure of process,” not his own failure. When asked if he had considered resigning, he smiled and flippantly said “I consider resigning every day.” What? His whole tone was somehow too casual and haughty at the same time, as if he wasn’t taking this very serious situation seriously because it was somewhat beneath him.

Rule #1 of media training for crisis management: when bad things happen, address them immediately, take full responsibility, and if an apology is called for (as it certainly was in this case), it should be complete, unequivocal and sincere. No qualifications or weak attempts at humor.

As of this writing, President Barchi still has his job. But he didn’t help himself with his pathetic performance in front of the cameras.