Press Conferences, Motorcycles and the Fast Pace of News

If there’s one aspect of social media that most amazes me, it’s how people, concepts and events that flew under the radar (or didn’t even exist) two weeks before become everyone’s obsession.

In this moment, I can’t think of a better example than University of Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long.

Last Thursday, Long announced he was placing Razorback football coach Bobby Petrino on paid administrative leave while he conducted an investigation into Petrino’s April 1 motorcycle crash and alleged inappropriate relationship with a football staffer he hired.

The results of that investigation were released Tuesday night, when Long stepped to the podium and announced Petrino’s firing. (If you haven’t already seen it, watch this PR case study-in-the-making.)

Tweets swarmed in with praise for Long’s handling of the situation. Eventually, some writers cautioned against a lovefest, saying Long probably realized he had no choice but to fire Petrino after making one call to the school’s legal counsel. (In his Tuesday night column, Andy Staples does a good job of describing some of the negative repercussions Arkansas avoided with its decision to fire Petrino.) Those people are probably right. Simply firing Bobby Petrino doesn’t make Jeff Long a good example of how to conduct media relations. It’s the way he delivered his message.

I won’t spend paragraphs dissecting it, but Long addressed all the questions that boiled up on Twitter in the time (around an hour) between Joe Schad’s first tweet about the firing and the moment Long walked onstage. What exactly were the grounds for his termination with cause? He hired his mistress for a position on the football staff, for which there were 158 other applicants. Had Long made Petrino an offer to stay that he had turned down? No, Long said; no such offer had been made.

The heart of his statement: “No single individual is bigger than the team.”

With those eight words (and the shedding of a few believable and genuine tears that conveyed the full emotional impact of this ordeal on Long and the entire school), Long cemented his position as a go-to YouTube search in public relations classes for years to come. “A stand-up guy just stood up,” tweeted George Schroeder, who knows him personally.

We’re used to social media creating headlines: athlete tweets offensive comment, boosters flood a recruit’s Facebook inbox, etc. What I forget is how quickly it facilitates the development of and conversation around stories that have nothing to do with social media gaffes. Before Jeff Long took the stage last Thursday, a reporter twitpic’d the release distributed to media. On Tuesday, Joe Schad’s tweet had everyone buzzing about Petrino’s firing before Long confirmed it. Discussion continued throughout the weekend as details surfaced and people spouted opinions as to the appropriate future for Petrino in Fayetteville.

When he hopped on the motorcycle, Bobby Petrino didn’t have the slightest clue his personal and professional worlds were about to unravel. When he woke up Thursday morning, Jeff Long didn’t have the slightest clue his night would end at a podium announcing Petrino’s administrative leave. When I opened TweetDeck at 4 p.m. Tuesday, I didn’t have the slightest clue I’d be glued to a press conference 90 minutes later. I’ll leave the discussion of Arkansas’ (and Petrino’s) future to people actually paid to think about it. All I can think about is how the words I write tomorrow won’t make any sense if I read them right now.

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