University of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o certainly had a horrible end to 2012 and his New Year is shaping up to be no better.
First his online sweetheart Lennay Kekua succumbs to cancer on Sept. 12—the same day his grandmother dies. Then he finds out that neither the disease nor the girl was real and that he’d fallen in love with a figment of his imagination.
This situation wouldn’t have been so bad for Te’o if the story had remained among his immediate circle of friends. They’d tease him into infinity but he’d eventually get over it. Thanks to Deadspin.com, the whole world knows Te’o loved empty words and another woman’s stolen photo, and they think he was involved in the lie.
In his interview with Katie Couric, taped Jan. 22, Te’o admitted that someone posing as Kekua called him on Dec. 6. Though he knew something wasn’t right, he continued the ruse anyway to save face. We don’t know for sure if he was in on the hoax the whole time or not (the levels of he-said she-said here are amazing). But if he wasn’t, how does he deal with massive embarrassment while trying to be a normal college student and athlete?
Notre Dame is probably wondering what they should do in this predicament, too. After all, the media refers to this debacle as the “Notre Dame hoax.” Is this a PR nightmare? Maybe not.
As head of Notre Dame’s public information office, here are four things my staff would do to mitigate the situation:
- Ask Te’o if he’s okay and offer him our support. The statement the university issued on Jan 16 was fine, but this story is just a student’s personal dilemma. The fact that he spoke publicly about his “girlfriend” while wearing a school football uniform doesn’t make this a university-wide issue. All we have is his word that he was truly a victim. The university’s first responsibility is to the student. We’d meet with Te’o, find out how he’s holding up and support him however we can—especially when dealing with the media. Perhaps we’d help him devise a crisis strategy, choose what media outlets to speak to and provide him with media training. Maybe we’d even suggest he appear on MTV’s Catfish to solve the peculiar mystery. We’d also answer any media inquiries that come into our office—including through social media—supporting Te’o’s official statement.
- Provide him counseling resources and have a mental health professional contact the student. Te’o could tell us he’s okay with everything going on, but we never know for sure what’s going on in his mind. We’d give him the names and numbers of a handful of counselors—or a counselor at the university—just in case. We’d also have one of these counselors call him to open the communication line.
- Make sure the football coaches offer their support and address the issue to the team. Te’o’s coaches should make sure he knows they have an open door policy and are there if he needs them. The coaches and players should also talk about the situation briefly as a team.
- Organize an online dating discussion on campus and tell Te’o beforehand that this is happening. There are probably other students on campus experiencing similar situations. Help a campus organization organize a forum about online dating and invite experts to answer questions and encourage discussion.
Angie Jennings Sanders is chief content architect at aiellejai, a boutique content creation consultancy specializing in marketing communications project management, social media engagement, writing instruction/tutoring and book writing/publishing strategy. aiellejai is a subsidiary of esolutions360, a digital solutions agency that marries the creativity of content creation with the fundamentals of software engineering. Follow her on Twitter at @pronouncedALJ.