Crisis Management Case Study: Middle-School Principal/Sex Offender


Though identifying details including names and locations have been changed, the following is a real-life case study based on Bernstein Crisis Management client experiences.

The Crisis

St. Mary’s Christian Middle School, located in a Boston suburb served a co-ed group of students from a moderately affluent community. Its principal, Don Marks, was in his mid-30’s and much beloved by employees, students and parents alike.

Apparently a little too beloved. Angry parents went to the police when their 13-year-old daughter reported having sexual relations with Mr. Marks. The police arrested him late one evening, and someone from his home notified a St. Mary’s board member. Sudden “social media, email and phone hell” erupted overnight.

Bernstein Crisis Management was already known to the school’s outside counsel, who called Jonathan Bernstein to begin the formal process of crisis communications. Immediately thereafter, allegations surfaced that Mr. Marks described his relationship with the young student as an “affair.” Of course, Massachusetts law had a different opinion.

The Response

School officials were advised that communications would have to reach their stakeholders by whatever means worked best for each stakeholder group. Hence email, a website, a dedicated phone number, group meetings and one-on-one meetings were all part of the initial communications plan.

Jonathan Bernstein worked with St. Mary’s in-house PR person and their legal counsel to rapidly craft key messages that became the building blocks for all communications going forward, while helping the school issue some short-term “holding statements” in the meantime, e.g., “We are shocked and horrified by these allegations. We’re cooperating fully with the Boston PD while lending all the support we can to the victim, her family, and our entire St. Mary’s community.”

The school was advised to at all times communicate with compassion, confidence and competence. To be prompt, honest and informative in their messaging. And, by and large, its communicators succeeded. While legal waves would go on for years, the PR uproar – even internally — largely died down within a couple of weeks.

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