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UI rethinks PR approach after football hospitalizations

BY JORDAN GARRETSON | FEBRUARY 23, 2011 7:20 AM

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University of Iowa officials are reevaluating how they communicate during high-publicity incidents after receiving national scrutiny for their response to Hawkeye football players’ hospitilizations last month, according to e-mails released Tuesday.

The evaluation comes after the hospitalization of 13 football players in January for rhabdomyolysis, a muscle condition apparently caused by a strenuous workout.

Hundreds of e-mails released Tuesday reveal an extensive and sometimes seemingly disjointed correspondence among UI officials as they struggled to handle the mounting media pressure for information about the athletes.

Documents show the UI’s top communications official disagreed with the university’s public relations approach after the incident.

“I’m just wondering aloud if we’re accomplishing any objective by issuing such a statement as written,” Tysen Kendig, the UI vice president for Strategic Communication, wrote to Ned Amendola, the director of sports medicine, and others on Jan. 25, shortly after the university’s initial release. “All we really say is that players were hospitalized en masse but don’t cite a reason at all. That could lead to public-health concerns to a small degree, but certainly to rampant and unfounded speculation.”

In response, Amendola wrote, “I appreciate your frustrations, but giving too much information that is not confirmed also raises more questions. We have generally been very careful with medical issues and what is best for all concerned.”

The UI’s initial release on Jan. 25 included little information beyond stating 12 student-athletes had been admitted to UI Hospitals and Clinics and they were “responding well to treatment.”

Several UI officials and a football player’s father met with the media at a news conference the following day.

“We always look back on every situation and look at the pros and cons,” Kendig told The Daily Iowan Tuesday. “… In light of this situation and others, it shows we can do a better job. Everyone seems to agree.”

Kendig said officials have begun discussing how to handle future incidents, and meetings are scheduled. But he said there would be no formalized changes requiring the Athletics Department to go through his office before releasing information.

“The more coordinated and open we are in internal communication, the better and more effectively we can create a clear external image for the university,” Kendig said.

UI President Sally Mason told the DI Monday that, looking back, both the hospital and the Athletics Department should have been in communication with Kendig.

“That way we can coordinate our message so that we at least know where we all are,” Mason said. “That’s probably the one thing I ask people to do — a better job of making sure we’re communicating centrally.”

Documents also show UI officials deciding to turn down a MSNBC TV interview out of fear they would need to decline answering many questions and be characterized as “stonewalling” or “combative.”

Richard Klatt, assistant athletics director, said in one e-mail that crafting Ferentz’s statement allowed them to “control the message.”

He added at the end of the e-mail: “Also — very, very important — please delete this e-mail after reading it.”

Several communications experts unrelated to the UI criticized the university’s handling of the case.

“They really need to control the rumor mill, and it didn’t sound as though [UI officials] did that,” said Joyce Newman, the president of the New York-based Newman Group.

With increasing technology, it’s become imperative for administrators to get ahead of a story, said Bruce Hennes, the managing partner of crisis communications and media training firm Hennes Paynter Communications.

“Tell the truth, tell it all, and tell it first,” Hennes said.

DI reporter Allie Wright andMetro Editor Regina Zilbermintscontributed to this report.


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