The news headlines were stunning:
There’s only one problem with the headlines: There never was a $250 million “gift” to Centre College!
Here are four lessons you can learn from this amazing public relations fiasco:
1. Do NOT mislead the public.
Perhaps the news media can be forgiven for getting the story wrong. After all, Centre College proudly announced on July 30, 2013: “Centre College receives historic gift to establish Brockman Scholars Program.” The official announcement began:
Centre College has received a gift of $250 million in the form of stock in Universal Computer Systems Holding, Inc. (Reynolds and Reynolds) from the A. Eugene Brockman Charitable Trust to establish the Brockman Scholars Program in Leadership and Entrepreneurship.”
Unfortunately, as recent events have demonstrated, the announcement was not just premature it was not true. The fact is that Centre College did not receive a $250 million gift. Peter Lattman, writing for Deal Book/ New York Times, quoted Centre College President John Roush as saying:
In retrospect, we might have put a big asterisk on this thing, but no one had any inkling that this would come about.”
The historic gift was a contingent pledge based on a complex recapitalization deal going through. Regrettably, the financial deal blew up and, therefore, the gift never materialized, according to the College.
If the College had simply delayed announcing the gift until it actually materialized, it could have avoided enormous embarrassment. Alternatively, if the College had simply characterized the $250 million as a “pledge” or “potential gift” rather than a “gift,” it still could have avoided significant embarrassment.
2. Recognize the difference between a “pledge” and a “gift.”
Centre College had a contingent pledge for a $250 million gift. They never had the gift. It’s not a gift until you have the cash, stock, property, or irrevocable gift agreement in-hand.
Because the College never had a $250 million gift, it did not lose $250 million. That’s about the best that can be said of this situation. This is really just a case of a nonprofit organization publicly counting its chickens before they hatched. Don’t make the same mistake.
3. When you mess up, get your story straight, and make sure it’s complete and accurate.
The Centre College public relations mess has worsened as the almost-donor contradicted the College regarding the reason the gift did not materialize. Ry Rivard, writing for Inside Higher Ed, has done an excellent job reporting on the non-gift. Rivard shared this statement from Evatt Tamine, the head of the Brockman Charitable Trust, the would-be donor:
As Centre knows… it was the scholarship side of this that derailed everything else.”
While Centre College officials maintain that the deal blew up when the company funding the trust was unable to recapitalize, the head of the trust says the deal fell through because of a failure of the trust and the College to agree to the terms of the scholarship program.
So, who is telling the truth? At this point, we don’t really know. However, what is perfectly clear is that this public disagreement about what went wrong makes an already terrible situation even worse.
When you stumble, it’s important to get the full story out to the public quickly and accurately. Centre College might have been quick, but it appears they might not have been completely forthcoming. This hurts its credibility.
4. When in the midst of a public relations fiasco, stop saying stupid stuff.
In the report, Rivard also shared a statement from Richard Trollinger, Vice President for College Relations at Centre College, who had worked on trying to secure the $250 million gift:
While this didn’t work out this time, I’ll be coming back to bend his ear and twist his arm, because it’s a compelling good we’re working toward.”
In case you’re unsure, the “he” referenced by Trollinger is Evatt Tamine, the head of the Brockman Charitable Trust. Trollinger wants to “bend his ear” and “twist his arm.” How lovely. Is this really what professional development has come to? Arm twisting?
Trollinger did not close an irrevocable $250 million gift. He did not prevent the College from making a premature, inaccurate announcement. Not only did he fail to get all parties to the negotiation on the same page regarding what went wrong, he did not even get out front on that particular issue. Now, he wants to twist the arm of the potentially alienated donor at the heart of the situation because Trollinger wants the trust to give again and give more.
Trollinger’s utterance is the antithesis of being donor centered. It’s the wrong orientation and the wrong tone.
With the College in damage-control mode, I’m sure Trollinger would like nothing more than to close a mega-gift to help everyone forget everything that has gone wrong over the past several weeks. But, threatening to twist arms is not exactly the best way to achieve his goal.
I suspect that Trollinger understands the right way to do development work. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I’m guessing that he now prefers that he had expressed himself more elegantly. And that’s my point.
A former British politician, Denis Healey, is credited with saying:
If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”
That’s good advice for Trollinger. It’s good advice for us all.
The Centre College situation is certainly embarrassing. Sadly, it’s a problem largely of its own making. So, while I feel a bit sorry for the College staff, the folks I’m most unhappy for are the 40 students who won’t be receiving a full scholarship to attend the school each year. I wish Centre College the best as it continues to work to provide meaningful scholarship assistance to worthy students.
That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?