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Rutgers hired PR firm to help deal with McCormick affair

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- Rutgers University spent $15,000 to bring in a public relations firm before President Richard L. McCormick admitted that an extramarital affair was one reason he left his last job.

On Nov. 1, Rubenstein Associates offered advice on protecting the university's reputation. The next day, McCormick told reporters that he left the University of Washington in part because the board there learned of his affair with a school employee.

"We understood immediately that this would be a significant issue for the university," Rutgers spokesman Mark Maben told The Star-Ledger of Newark. "It was critical to the future progress of Rutgers that we respond to this situation effectively."

New York-based Rubenstein's clients include George Steinbrenner, Leona Helmsley and the Duchess of York.

The firm charged Rutgers a $15,000 flat fee under a contract that includes unlimited assistance in dealing with fallout from McCormick's admission. The university could call the firm five years from now if it still needs advice on the issue, Maben said.

The money will come from the university's budget, but neither state nor tuition funds will be used, Maben said.

Communications consultant John Ross, who wrote "Public Relations and the Presidency: Strategies and Tactics for Effective Communications," said Rutgers seems to have weathered the crisis well.

"What this really is all about is getting the truth on the table and moving forward," Ross said. "If you're accurate with the details ... more than likely you'll be given a second chance."

Another expert said getting the facts out quickly is always best.

"You can do it in a morning or you can do it over a lifetime," said James Lukaszewski, head of a While Plains, N.Y.-based crisis-management firm and a professor at New York University. "It's called the 'golden hour.' ... Get it done in the first hour and it goes away much faster."

On Oct. 30, Rutgers' media relations office fielded a call from a Seattle Times reporter. The newspaper was preparing to run a story saying that McCormick was encouraged to leave the University of Washington after the school's board of regents confronted him with rumors about an affair.

McCormick, who had denied the affair in the past, admitted it to Rutgers Board of Governors Chairman Gene O'Hara and other university officials that night.

In conference calls the next day, McCormick and O'Hara broke the news to board members and asked for support. The university president also read a carefully worded statement to the Seattle Times reporter, admitting he had the affair and covered it up.

McCormick contacted the governor's office the next day, while Rutgers communications staffers worked on the problem.

Hours after the Seattle Times story broke on Sunday, McCormick appeared at a news conference with his wife and O'Hara.

This week, McCormick met with student and faculty leaders.

O'Hara said public sentiment seems to be on McCormick's side and there have been few, if any, calls for his resignation.

"I am overwhelmed with the amount of support coming in," O'Hara said.

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