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From End Zone to End Zone: Tackling the Notre Dame Debacle

Jan 28, 2013

I think this whole Notre Dame palava involving 21-year-old linebacker Manti Te’o needs a serious timeout.

Better yet, can’t we go to commercial and prepare half time festivities instead? Even with all my years of public relations experience, this story has really thrown me for a loop. I’m not even sure where to begin.

But as I’m ironing that out, let’s go to the errr…tape and instant replay. We have: Manti Teosuperstar college athlete, powerhouse sob story, online romance, cancer, death, rise from the dead, little white lie about said death, giant hoax, superstar victim, Katie Couric – and the blame game continues. Did I miss anything?  In the 12 days since Manti Te’o’s story broke on Jan. 16, revealing that his online girlfriend was indeed not only not dead, but in fact had never really existed, we’ve again seen the media succumb to pack mentality at first and then ease off as more details surface.

Like football players themselves, they were ready to sack Te’o for lying to the public and using death-of-loved one sympathy and superstardom to drum up Notre Dame team spirit and support. You can’t really blame the reporters either; I would likely do the same thing.

But as fast as they were ready to draw blood, a different story is still unfolding that positions Te’o as the victim, along with his parents, teammates, Notre Dame footballers and Diane O’Meara, whose photo was used without her consent in creating the online profile of one Lennay Kekua, the supposed girlfriend, whom Te’o never physically met.

The lessons that stem from this incident are far-ranging and appropriate to different players in the drama – no matter your personal feelings on Te’o and his opportunism or idioSocial-Media-iconscy. I’m all for a democratized Internet and value the importance of mobile media, Skype, Facebook, Twitter and all the rest. But I fear that a growing number of young Americans, Millennials in particular, have grown too attached to their devices and gadgets – so wedded to the virtual world that the real world is no longer quite so real and deceiving people, if that’s what Te’o did, becomes something like video game strategy.

Our agency’s clients benefit from advanced communications technology like never before and it’s something that many PR firms rely on. Yet at some point in brand and marketer outreach (or any personal connection) there has to be a human handshake, somewhere.

The media deserves some scolding too. We all know the 24-hour news cycle has given way to the 24-second news bite. Tweets must be posted and blogs need “feeding.” But when reporting stories like this, journalists, like some fourth quarter football team down by a touchdown, must “dig deep” and remember restraint. In football and communications, clock management is key. Get ahead of yourself too quickly and the game – or story – could be lost. Of course, you could argue the media should have done a better job of investigating the girlfriend death story months ago, but that’s a topic for another time.

I don’t know how this will play out. I can, however, speculate on the impact this incident will have on Te’o’s aspiring career – not much if he performs well on the field. But I sincerely hope it will serve to remind us all to let the facts – all the facts –speak first.

Not just in the virtual world, but in the real world where a handshake, an actual lover or a girlfriend’s embrace means something genuine and tangible.

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