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Deliver Good News Fast, and Bad News Faster

By Michael Lentz, Wagonheim Law Attorney

Just over a week ago, Bobby Petrino (the head football coach at the University of Arkansas) was injured in a motorcycle accident. Petrino initially reported that he had been alone in the accident, and that a female passerby had flagged down assistance.

Last Thursday, Petrino confirmed swirling rumors that he had not, in fact, been alone at the time of the accident. At the time of the accident, Petrino, married and 51, was with Jessica Dorrell, 25-year-old alumni of the University, married to another athletic department staffer. Petrino had recently hired Dorrell as fundraiser for the Razorback Foundation, a booster club of sorts for the University’s athletic teams.

Several days after the accident, Petrino admitted, and apologized for, a relationship with Dorrell that he termed “inapproporiate.” Of course, Petrino’s post hoc mea culpa also amounted to an admission that he had lied to his family and his employer.

Petrino now finds himself on administrative leave, on the precipice of unemployment, put there not by his indiscretion, but by his foolish attempt to cover the matter up.

Petrino is probably one of the most recognizable public figures in Arkansas. He was seriously injured in a one-vehicle motor accident on a major highway. Certainly, dozens of motorists passed the wreck before Petrino and his passenger had even regained their faculties. In this, an era in which nearly everyone carries a phone capable of taking still pictures and videos, “cover-ups” of public incidents are well nigh impossible.

This is particularly so when litigation is threatened, or certain. Bad news is virtually certain to be discovered eventually. The “cover-up” often makes the bad news seem worse, and always gives opponents something else to focus on.

Unfortunately, in the middle of a crisis (real or perceived), individuals often respond as Petrino did in the aftermath of his crash. The best of intentions can abandon even the soundest of minds in time of crisis. For most small businesses, significant litigation, or public embarrassments, rightly counts as a crisis. Every small business with more than one employee would do well to consider a policy for responding to public missteps.

Most significantly, the business must speak with one voice, be it an employee of the business, an outside law firm, or public relations firm. For the spokesperson to function effectively, all of the business’ employees must refrain from speaking, and must ensure that the company’s officers and directors have timely, complete, and accurate information. Employees who can’t be honest and forthright should rightly find themselves where coach Petrino does today – facing an evaluation of whether his employer can or should function without him.