Duke University Implements Crisis Communication Strategies

30 Jun

What crisis communication strategies can be used to address a crisis situation? To find out, I read an academic journal article this week for my public relations class. I chose the following article:

Fortunato, J.A. (2008). Restoring a reputation: The Duke University lacrosse scandal. Public Relations Review, 34(2), 116-123.

The article demonstrates theoretical concepts for crisis communication strategies in public relations and how those strategies can be used to cope with a crisis situation.

The case that was analyzed implementing these strategies was the lacrosse team scandal at Duke University. The public relations crisis in this study occurred March 13, 2006, at Duke when three lacrosse team members created what has been coined as the “Duke lacrosse scandal.” The three players were accused of first-degree rape and sexual assault of an exotic African-American dancer they personally hired. The scandal not only affected the lacrosse team members but also Duke.

The case analyzes Duke’s communication response to the scandal through the concept of message framing and how Duke’s actions illustrated theoretical concepts.

The article reviewed Benoit’s image restoration strategies:

  1. Denial strategy: The organization claims there is no crisis or actions to be implemented.
  2. Evasion of responsibility strategy: The organization blames others for the crisis to try and reduce their responsibility.
  3. Attempt to reinforce strategy: The organization reduces the offensiveness of the acts by demonstrating good traits within the organization.
  4. Corrective action strategy: The organization implements steps to fix the problem and prevent further incidents from occurring.
  5. Mortification strategy: The organization accepts responsibility for the crisis and apologizes.

Since the scandal involved underage drinking and collegiate athletics, the story received the attention from various mass media outlets.

The analysis consisted of examining the website (http://www.dukenews.duke.edu/nmedia/features/lacrosse_incident/) that Duke created to deal with the crisis.

The website contains news releases, statements from President Richard Brodhead, footage from CBS’ 60 Minutes interview with Brodhead, committee reports and Q&A from Duke Alumni.


Duke’s communication response consisted of conducting news conferences, writing news releases, and creating a website. Brodhead took leadership of dealing with the crisis by communicating to the public the facts of the incident. He composed a letter to the Duke community outlining the steps the university would make to deal with the crisis. Brodhead explained that the incident intertwined with cultural issues; Brodhead believed that the problem needed to be recognized and addressed to its stakeholders such as alumni, students and parents. He informed the public that this incident created an opportunity for the university. This opportunity demonstrated how the university realized the incident was not appropriate behavior but that the incident by no means is an indication of the reputation of Duke.

Duke’s corrective actions consisted of forming committees that addressed the cultural issue, taking the initiative to cancel the lacrosse season and addressing the issue of alcohol on campus.


Duke faced the scandal and used theoretical concepts that were presented by researchers Benoit and Coombs to create image restoration. Furthermore, Duke implemented the following strategies to deal with the crisis and restore its reputation:

  • Mortification strategy: Duke accepted responsibility for the incident and took action.
  •  Reinforce strategy: Duke reduced offensiveness and illustrated good traits the university portrays.

Limitations to the analysis of the case consist of organizations reluctance to reveal its communication strategies. To evaluate the case there can only be inferences about the organization’s preparedness for the crisis. This analysis does not measure the effectiveness of Duke’s response to the incident.


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