Covington Catholic High School Gets Caught in the Eye of a Perfect Political Storm

Did the Embattled School Rush to Throw Its Own Students Under the Bus?

1/23/19 – – If you ever doubted that in today’s interconnected world a reputation built over decades can face annihilation in minutes, put yourself in the shoes of the administrators, faculty, students, parents and alums of Covington Catholic High School (located in Park Hills, Kentucky, just south of Cincinnati).  

You probably never heard of Covington Catholic until this weekend. But even if you’re a casual consumer of news, I’ll bet you have strong feelings now about the school and its students. Chances are good that your introduction to the school came from a brief video posted on Twitter (@2020fight) on Saturday, January 19. The footage, taken the day before in Washington, D.C., depicted what appeared to be a confrontation on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial between a drum-beating Native American demonstrator (participating in the Indigenous Peoples March)  and a Covington Catholic student wearing a red MAGA hat (on a field trip to participate in the March for Life).

The message on the tweet read: “This MAGA loser gleefully bothering a Native American protestor at the Indigenous Peoples March.”

The video went viral. News media outlets, with very little information available other than the video, rushed to judgment, stereotyping the participants and leaping to the harshest of political conclusions. It was a perfect political storm. And despite an almost total lack of context, reporters and pundits quickly declared victims and villains. They concluded: The smirking white-privileged kid in the MAGA hat and his smart-ass classmates displaying all that toxic masculinity must be the villains. The peaceful old Native American guy is the victim here.

Not so fast.

When conflicting first-hand testimony and additional video portraying a far more complicated situation came to light, most of the journalists, celebrities and politicians who had shamed the students and their school toned down or fully retracted their initial vitriol.

There’s been plenty of political commentary about this incident. I’ll leave that to others.

As a crisis counselor, I want to focus on the premature declaration of victims and villains — a common element of contemporary crises — which is at the heart of this lesson-packed case study. With the explosive speed of internet conversation, the media’s propensity to rush to judgment puts enormous pressure on those portrayed as villains to respond. Companies, individuals and organizations finding themselves at the center of a reputational storm want to jump in fast, uphold their honor and tell their side of the story. Those are certainly the right goals.

Not so fast.

In Chapter 11 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient — Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“Determining Guilt or Innocence”), I make the point that before you answer your critics, no matter how ugly their charges may be, you first have to determine what it is you’re guilty of, if anything. This essential first step, as obvious as it may seem, is often skipped during the initial phase of a crisis. It’s hard to think straight in an atmosphere of chaos and shaming. Apologies, which may seem like the quickest way to stop the bleeding, are appropriate when you’ve done something wrong. But before you decide to come out of the gate accepting the villain label, find out what’s going on.

You have three response modes from which to choose:

HOLD YOUR FIRE — You really don’t know if what you’ve been charged with is accurate or justified.

WE DIDN’T DO IT — After being brutally honest with yourselves, you determine that you’re getting a bum rap.

OKAY, WE DID IT — You know that the charges are legitimate (at least in part), so you accept responsibility.

As the incomplete (if not purposely misleading) video was exploding online, the Diocese of Covington and the school jumped right into OKAY, WE DID IT mode. Here’s the joint statement they issued within hours of the initial video’s posting:

We condemn the actions of the Covington Catholic High School students towards Nathan Phillips specifically, and Native Americans in general, Jan. 18, after the March for Life, in Washington, D.C. We extend our deepest apologies to Mr. Phillips. This behavior is opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person.

The matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.

We know this incident also has tainted the entire witness of the March for Life and express our most sincere apologies to all those who attended the March and all those who support the pro-life movement.

Wow. I bet they wish they’d held their fire a bit longer.

Did they really have a clear enough understanding of the “actions” they condemned to justify an OKAY, WE DID IT statement? Had they been sufficiently briefed by the adult chaperones who were in front of the Lincoln Memorial with the students waiting for their busses when the Native American activist (who we now know a lot more about) approached them? The premature confession on behalf of the students, which I’m sure was well intentioned at the time, seems very unfair, almost defamatory, given what we know today.

Don’t misunderstand: Operating in the HOLD YOUR FIRE mode does not imply silence or inaction. A statement of awareness, promising that you’re taking any allegations seriously and working diligently to get the facts, should be issued as quickly as possible.  It’s a short-term strategy for sure, but one that the Diocese of Covington — which has removed the initial statement from its website and pivoted into modified WE DIDN’T DO IT mode — would have been well-served to have followed.

In any endeavor, speed without situational awareness leads to mistakes. That’s especially important to remember when navigating a reputational storm. 

UPDATE: On January 25, the Bishop overseeing Covington Catholic High School issued an apology to the school community for being “bullied” into making the premature statement discussed above. A third party was retained to investigate the incident for the Diocese. Here’s a link to the statement and the report issued by the investigators on February 13, 2019:

UPDATE: In February the family of Nicholas Sandmann (singled out in the viral videos) filed a defamation lawsuit against The Washington Post for $250 million.

UPDATE: On March 1 The Washington Post published an “editor’s note” walking back the paper’s initial coverage of this event. Seems that the lawsuit got their attention.

UPDATE: On January 8, 2020, The Washington Examiner reported that Sandmann had reached a settlement with CNN. Both sides confirmed the settlement, but did not disclose the terms, including the amount of any payment made by CNN. Suits are still pending with the Washington Post and NBC.

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