With the popular Netflix documentary series Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist resurfacing the Manti Te’o story, I wanted to explore the public relation strategies used and how there could have been a better approach to handling the situation.
A Little Bit of Background
If you are unfamiliar with the Manti Te’o story, he was one of the top linebackers in college football and played for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. During his senior year, both his grandmother and girlfriend passed away. At the time, he was Heisman hopeful, projected to go in the first round of the NFL Draft and his team was currently undefeated. Dealing with these horrific losses, he devoted his senior season in their memories. There was just one thing that he or no one else knew, he was being catfished and his girlfriend did not exist.
Manti would end the season as a Heisman finalist but losing the last game of the season to Alabama in the National Championship game. Many people suggest he was a finalist because of his powerful story of playing for his loved ones. Unbeknownst to Manti, Lennay was just a collection of stolen photos and behind this was Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who now identifies as a transgender woman named Naya. At the time, Manti had never met Lennay but did have many phone conversations where Ronaiah would actually speak in a young woman’s voice. Manti had no idea that on the other line was a man named Ronaiah and held this belief until Lennay would reach out to Manti after she was presumed dead.
Where Did Things Go Wrong
At this point, Manti did not know what was going on and did not know who or what to believe. He even went to Notre Dame to tell them that he thoughts his girlfriend was still alive all while preparing for the NFL Draft. Notre Dame wanted to hold on disclosing any information because they wanted to focus on the BCS National Championship game and were not sure on how to properly disseminate the information, being just as confused as Manti.
During this time, Deadspin.com was working on this exact story when they received a tip from one of Ronaiah’s relatives. Working tirelessly to release the story, they reached out to all parties involved for comment before running the story. When they reached out to Manti, he was unreachable which was a mistake on his part. When the story ran it painted the picture that Manti was in on the whole scheme because many people thought who would be naïve enough to believe in this. Well, that person was Manti. When the story broke, many thought he was in on the scam to be self-promotional, he received a lot of backlash, hateful comments, jokes and insults because of it. This all came at a time when he was preparing for the NFL Draft where he was supposed to go in the first round but was not taken until the second round.
The reason Deadspin.com was so interested in the story was to embarrass sports media, mainly ESPN, for not fact-checking and looking for the death certificate of Lennay Keuka. What they really created was a media storm surrounding Manti and Ronaiah.
What Steps Could Have Been Taken
The most important thing Manti could have done was taken control of the narrative right away. When he found out that his girlfriend was still alive and was under suspicion that she was not who she said she was, he should have come out publicly about it. If he were to do this, the Deadspin.com article would have lost most of its steam and it would probably have died. Yes, it would have still been shocking, but at least it would have come from Manti and not a news outlet.
When Manti went to Notre Dame with this information, they should have come up with a response right away, instead of waiting and ultimately doing nothing. One of the most important things to do in times of crisis is to respond quickly, accurately and honestly. Instead, Notre Dame chose to focus on their national championship game.
When Deadspin.com reached out for comment, Manti should have picked up the phone and at the very least provided his perspective and side of what happened. Providing a comment for the story could have made things slightly better for Manti and he probably would not have been perceived as a culprit.
In the end, Manti, Notre Dame, and the people around him should have been focused on fact-gathering, drafting a quick and timely response to control the narrative, being transparent about what happened and discussing the next steps instead of using the wait-and-see method. If Manti had taken these proper steps, the overall perception and damage done to his reputation could have been less severe.