No answers will ever satisfy a parent in the wake of the death of a child. We were reminded of that this week when Notre Dame student Declan Sullivan was killed in a tragic accident when the scissor lift from which he was filming Notre Dame football practice toppled over in high winds. It’s a heartbreaking story, no doubt. And the questions will keep coming until they’re answered.
I’ve also been watching this story unfold and analyzing the public relations response from Notre Dame. Thus far, it’s been handled with class and care. Though it seems obvious, it was smart to put ND president Rev. John Jenkins and Jack Swarbrick, athletic director, front and center. In crisis situations an organization looks meek and guilty if it hides behind a lawyer or a spokesperson. It was also smart to shield football head coach Brian Kelly and all other team personnel from this situation. It is an ongoing investigation and, while questions abound for Kelly and others on the scene, it would’ve been inappropriate to involve them to speak at this juncture. The media also would’ve grilled him.
Kelly made his first public statements in the postgame press conference Saturday, after a day dedicated to the memory of Declan Sullivan. It was a smart, controlled move by ND officials to make this the first opportunity for Kelly to address the matter. While I respect and understand the media’s role, having them question Kelly about Declan Sullivan ahead of Saturday would’ve cast a long shadow over all the memorials. It also gave the Sullivan family to grieve and issue a statement in their own time, which they did this weekend.
Now that the football weekend is over and everyone will begin going back to business-as-usual, this is when the road gets rough. As an investigation into the matter closes, someone is going to be held accountable. The media will continue to chase the story outside of ND’s control. People will talk and fingers will be pointed. How does ND handle it from here? Sort of like dismantling a bomb, I’d say.
Just as ND has controlled the flow of information throughout the early stages of this tragedy, they will have to work twice as hard to maintain that control going forward. It is, in many senses, a second crisis altogether. The only thing ND can do right now, publicly, is be proactive in getting the answers—who was responsible for using the scissor lift that day? Who was responsible for understanding the safety issues?—and reporting those answers honestly and openly. ND also will continue to show compassion and support for the Sullivan family. Though cynics might see it as a means to avoid a lawsuit, Notre Dame officials have an obligation to keep the family engaged.
Managing this crisis is emotional, but the steps to take are fairly simple: get the answers, keep the Sullivan family close and involved, tell the truth when you get the answers.
What NOT to do: speak through a lawyer or spokesperson, point fingers, avoid the media.
But for now, my thoughts are with Declan Sullivan’s family.