Falwell Resigns, Creating a PR Opportunity for Liberty

2020-08-30 by Ronn Torossian

It’s been a tense last couple of weeks for one of the nation’s largest evangelical colleges, Liberty University. The president, Jerry Falwell, Jr., initially resigned, then, according to him, ‘never really resigned.’ Then, later in the week, he resigned (again), this time personally and, apparently, officially. The resignation comes as the embattled former university head faces major scrutiny from his evangelical, conservative base, as well as university trustees, because of reports of his involvement in a years-long affair his wife had.

The fall from grace has been both fast and steep, as Falwell had been, until very recently, one of the most influential evangelical leaders in the country, as well as a personal confidant and ardent supporter of the current presidential administration. But, from a PR perspective, not only was the exit a bad look, how the exit happened only made it worse. According to the university, Falwell “initially resigned” on Monday of that week, just hours after multiple news outlets broadcast clips of an interview with Giancarlo Granda, who claims he had both a business and a “personal” relationship with the Falwells. Granda says his relationship began with Becki Falwell, but that her husband sometimes watched. In the wake of that news story, the university announced that Falwell had resigned.

The next day, Falwell released a statement saying he did not resign and had only considered it to protect his school from the consequences of his wife’s actions. “The only reason I resigned is because I don’t want something my wife did to harm the school I’ve spent my whole life building… I never broke a single rule that applies to staff members at Liberty… So, I want everybody to know that.”

Despite putting all the blame on his wife, she seemed to come out in support of her husband, saying, “(We) are more in love than ever… We have the strongest relationship, and Jerry is the most forgiving person I’ve ever met… It’s a shame that Christians can’t give us the same forgiveness…”

A few more days of big headlines and growing Public Relations issues for both the Falwells and the school led Liberty to announce they had, again, accepted Falwell’s resignation. This time, he didn’t object, saying: “I’m 58 years old, and I think there’s something else in the cards for me… The board was gracious in accepting my resignation. It’s time to move on.”

For the university, Falwell’s departure is a potentially clean start after what had become a recurring PR problem. Falwell, Sr., who founded the college, was mostly well-liked and appreciated by the staff, students, and board. Falwell, Jr., apparently less so, according to repeated media reports. Junior was criticized for his lifestyle, staff treatment, and acerbic comments on social media. Earlier this year, he was castigated for “encouraging” students to return to campus after a COVID shutdown. At the time, his version of events did not match up with what some faculty and students had said. During that time, Falwell was called out for mocking a former Liberty professor. He neither apologized nor relented.

Now, the university has an opportunity to move past these PR issues and reaffirm its place and position in the higher education marketplace. Doing so will require some deft messaging, both internally and to the public.

Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5WPR, a leading PR agency.

Ronn Torossian: Insights from a Native New Yorker and CEO of 5WPR

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5W Public Relations, one of the largest independently-owned PR firms in the United States. With over 20 years of experience crafting and executing powerful narratives, Torossian is one of America's most prolific and well-respected Public Relations professionals. Since founding 5WPR in 2003, he has led the company's growth, overseeing more than 250 professionals in the company's headquarters in midtown Manhattan. With clients spanning corporate, technology, consumer and crisis, in addition to digital marketing and public affairs capabilities, 5WPR is regularly recognized as an industry leader and has been named "PR Agency of the Year" by the American Business Awards on multiple occasions. Throughout his career, Torossian has worked with some of the world's most visible companies, brands and organizations. His strategic, resourceful approach has been recognized with numerous awards including being named the Stevie American Business Awards 2020 Entrepreneur of the Year, the American Business Awards PR Executive of the Year, twice over, an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year semi-finalist, Metropolitan Magazine's Most Influential New Yorker, a 2020 Top Crisis Communications Professional by Business Insider, and a recipient of Crain’s New York 2021 Most Notable in Marketing & PR. Torossian is known as one of the country's foremost experts on crisis communications, and is called on to counsel blue chip companies, top business executives and entrepreneurs both in the United States and worldwide. Torossian has lectured on crisis PR at Harvard Business School, appears regularly on CNN & CNBC, is a contributing columnist for Forbes and the New York Observer, and has authored two editions of his book, "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results With Game-Changing Public Relations," which is an industry best-seller. A NYC native, Torossian lives in Manhattan with his children. He is a member of Young Presidents Organization (YPO), and active in numerous charities