President Obama at Notre Dame Maintaining integrity when actions speak louder than words
Overview • The announcement that President Obama would be honored at the Notre Dame Commencement precipitated objections, protests and rallies from around the country. • The issue played out both externally in the media and internally among a vast network of stakeholders, many of whom began to question their loyalty.
Background • President Obama actively promoted an agenda that stood in stark contrast to the pro-life beliefs of the Catholic Church. • In his first two months in office, he • Overturned the Mexico City Policy • Restored $50 million of U.S. funding to the United Nations Population Fund • Rescinded restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research • Moved to rescind the “conscience rules”
A Proud Tradition • Notre Dame founded in 1842 • Mission: “The University seeks to cultivate in its students not only an appreciation for the great achievements of human beings, but also a disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice and oppression that burdens the lives of so many.” • President Jenkins’s 2005 inaugural address, calling Notre Dame: “a center for leaning whose intellectual and religious traditions converge to make it a healing, unifying, enlightening force for a world deeply in need.”
Key Issues • Stakeholders are particularly vital to the success of non-profit organizations. • The degree to which an organization adheres to its mission has a direct impact on its image and, consequently, on its reputation. • Challenge of reconciling its actions with its mission: Can Notre Dame uphold its decision to honor President Obama and still maintain its dedication to its Catholic mission?
Controversy Timeline • March 20th: Notre Dame released the announcement that President Barack Obama would be the Commencement speaker and would receive an honorary doctor of laws degree. • March 29th: Bishop D’Arcy of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend issued a statement rebuking the University of Notre Dame and announcing he would not attend Commencement. • April 5th: Notre Dame student coalition ND Response sponsored a protest rally attended by an estimated 400 people. *All dates are 2009
Controversy Timeline • April 21st: Bishop D’Arcy issued a second statement rejecting the University’s interpretation of the 2004 bishop’s statement. • April 27th: Pro-life activist Mary Ann Glendon announced she was declining the Laetare Medal, a prestigious Catholic honor she was to receive at Commencement. • May 11th: Notre Dame President Jenkins sent a letter to the graduating class of 2009 offering reasoning for inviting President Obama and reassuring Commencement would be a celebration of their accomplishments. *All dates are 2009
Controversy Timeline • May 17th: President Obama delivered the commencement address at Notre Dame and received an honorary doctor of laws degree. At the same time, 3,000 people gathered on the South Quad for an alternative commencement ceremony. • June 29th: Father Jenkins addressed the Commencement issue in the Notre Dame Alumni Association E-Newsletter, thanking everyone for their input and asking for continued support. • September 16th: Father Jenkins sent a letter to Notre Dame alumni and friends regarding post-Commencement pro-life initiatives. *All dates are 2009
Media Coverage • Coverage was collected and analyzed from print, broadcast and Web • March 20 to May 23, 2009 • 1,196 articles were collected and analyzed for the University • These articles generated an estimated 2 billion impressions
Media Coverage • Coverage was both national and local, with stories appearing in: • Tone of the coverage: • 41% negative • 11% positive • 48% neutral • The New York Times • The Washington Post • The Wall Street Journal • Fox News • WNDU-TV South Bend • The South Bend Tribune
Stakeholder Response • Bishop D’Arcy (Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend) Decision to not attend Commencement “Notre Dame must ask itself, if by this decision it has chosen prestige over truth.” • ND Response Coalition of student organizations against President Obama being the 2009 Commencement speaker Sponsored rallies and prayer services Hosted “alternative commencement” attended by an estimated 3,000 people
Stakeholder Response • Mary Ann Glendon Harvard law professor, pro-life activist Declined the Laetare Medal (prestigious Catholic honor she was to receive at Commencement) • Facebook “Protest Obama as Notre Dame's 2009 Commencement Speaker” • 4,908 members (as of January 2010) “We Will Be Honored to Have President Obama at Notre Dame” • 7,341 members (as of January 2010)
Stakeholder Response • Web sites ReplaceJenkins.com (still active, updated) • “ND alumni for restoring the Catholic tradition of Our Lady’s University” • Tallied $14 million in donations withheld from Notre Dame by disenfranchised alumni and donors (as of May 13, 2009) • 1,400 pledges from alumni and donors promising to withhold future donations WeSupportNotreDame.org (no longer updated) • Linked to petition in support of the University’s decision
Stakeholder Response • Web sites NotreDameScandal.com (still active) • Hosted by the Cardinal Newman Society • Petition signed by 367,000 people opposing President Obama at Notre Dame • Also has Facebook page with 4,966 fans (as of January 2010) StopObamaNotreDame.com (still active) • Organized protests, provided instructions for holding protests • Provided contact information for petitions to ND Fellows, Trustees, and Vatican officials • Links to press coverage
University Response • Let the initial announcement stand on its own; don’t feed the frenzy • Prepared talking points for Fellows in defense of the University’s decision • Talking points were eventually leaked to the press, creating additional problems • Statement providing defense of the decision
University Response Internal • Low-profile, face-to-face meetings between President Jenkins and donors and alumni • Email from President Jenkins to graduating students reassuring Commencement will be a celebration of their accomplishments External • Do not engage protesters • Interact privately with Church hierarchy • Let President Jenkins’ commencement address serve as final word from the University
University Response Post-Commencement • Letter from President Jenkins in Alumni Association E-Newsletter • “Commencement was only the beginning of what I hope will be a vital engagement with the issues highlighted by this event.” • E-mail to alumni and friends from President Jenkins outlining post-commencement pro-life initiatives • Task Force on Supporting the Choice for Life • President Jenkins attending January March for Life in Washington, D.C.
Application of Page Principles • Tell the truth Notre Dame did not make excuses about its decision to honor President Obama or feel the need to defend itself. Still, many questioned the University’s character and integrity to its mission in light of recent actions. • Prove it with action Notre Dame insisted that honoring President Obama did not signify endorsement of his beliefs and policies regarding right-to-life issues and now must follow through on its promise of establishing dialogue. • Listen to the customer It is important for non-profit organizations such as Notre Dame to know, understand and address the expectations of its stakeholders; expectations that can, at times, be contradictory.
Application of Page Principles • Manage for tomorrow It is vital to consider the long-term ramifications, not just short-term issues, when controversy arises. Notre Dame must consider its reputation as a premiere Catholic university and how important that distinction is to its future success. • Conduct public relations as if the whole company depends on it Public relations is a management function and, as such, should be an integral consideration in all organizational decisions. The Notre Dame communications team’s involvement will be crucial as the University moves on from this controversy.
Application of Page Principles • A company’s true character is expressed by its people Character and integrity are central to this case and are invariably linked. Notre Dame’s official laisez-fair approach to this issue encouraged more attention to be paid to its outspoken faculty and students. • Remain calm, patient and good-humored It would be natural for an organization to want to defend itself in the heat of a controversy, however Notre Dame took the opposite approach, issuing few official statements and maintaining a relatively low profile. Don’t mistake this outward silence for inaction.
Discussion Questions • Could Notre Dame have positioned the issue of honoring President Obama at commencement in a way that would lessen the perceived contradiction and, thereby, diminish the potential controversy? • To what degree and in what capacity is the success or failure of the University dependent on its various groups of stakeholders? (In other words, why should Notre Dame be concerned with the opinions of its stakeholders?)
Discussion Questions • What role did faculty and students play in the public perception of the issue and how was this influence managed by the University? • How do Notre Dame’s actions and communications in this case reflect or disregard the University’s professed mission and how does that affect its public perception? • What can Notre Dame do now to rebuild, repair and strengthen relationships with its stakeholders and to reassert its integrity and dedication to its mission?
Discussion Questions • What are the potential ramifications if this exercise of autonomy and less-is-more approach to communication set a precedent for controversy, particularly considering the role stakeholders play in a non-profit organization like Notre Dame? • With the increasing popularity of social media outlets (Facebook, Twitter, blogs), how much of a presence should an organization, particularly a non-profit organization like Notre Dame, maintain in times of controversy? Would a stronger official online presence have helped or hurt Notre Dame in this case?
“I look forward to advancing this conversation, and I pray daily that Notre Dame remains a place of which you can be proud.” Father John Jenkins President, Notre Dame