By Heidi Hatfield Edwards, Ph.D.
I love football. I’m excited about Florida Tech’s new football program. The coach is energetic and earnest. The players I’ve met are courteous and enthusiastic about school and their sport. I’m cheering for them as I do for all the Panther teams.
I’m cheering for them to win games and to build a program of such strength of purpose and values that when faced with the inevitable pressures to succeed, they respond with the courage to uphold the integrity of the program and the individuals within it. As we’ve seen in so many instances, pressures to succeed in the classroom, on the sport field, and in the eyes of the public, can lead good men and women to make poor decisions. The integrity of the program must supersede the program’s image – which will only be enhanced with appropriate action and open communication.
Strategic communication specialists understand that communication is more than words spoken at a press conference and written in a news release. Communication is culture, and the culture of an organization is expressed in the words and actions of its members. All organizations face crises, most of which are predictable based on the nature of the business. Strategic communication professionals identify potential crises and do two things: institute processes to avoid preventable crises and develop communication and action plans for unavoidable crisis situations.
Football is high profile, and whether we like it or not, players are not like other students and coaches are not like other faculty and staff at the university. They are in the spotlight – most often purposefully as they seek support from fans, boosters, and press coverage of the team. Yet, raising the public image of the university through a new football program means also raising public scrutiny. Student newspaper The Crimson’s most recent issue demonstrates that scrutiny in a front-page article challenging students’ faulty assumptions that tuition helps support the new sport. (It does not.)
Florida Tech must be prepared for both spotlight and scrutiny, with a plan for open communication, setting processes in place to avoid crises that are predictable and behaving ethically when they are unavoidable. In light of recent college athletic scandals, no longer can the public image of any program be blindly accepted or protected. The lack of integrity in the face of institutional pressure has forever tarnished at least one institution’s image, exposed as a mask hiding those afraid of losing power. And as we know from the history of scandals in sports and a multitude of other areas, people and groups who have power to protect, often protect it at a cost to society and to their individual honor.
The Florida Tech football program has an opportunity to build healthy relationships with its stakeholders and with the broader community. While protecting the fledgling team from public scrutiny may be a natural instinct, making its culture and operations transparent is essential to its survival. Communication is key.
The challenge is not only for the football program but for all of us. As recent events have so poignantly illustrated, integrity must be modeled within the whole of the organization. Administrators, faculty, staff, students, and fans must step up to the challenge with the coaches and players. We are Florida Tech!