PR Lessons from Penn State

“At a company’s worst moment, the best thing it can do – and the first thing it should do – is apologize.”

Of all the college lectures I attended, this lesson from my Introduction to Public Relations professor was among the most memorable. Today, it also qualifies as the most ironic.

Workers remove the Joe Paterno statue in State College, PA on Sunday, July 22, 2012. Credit: Abby Drey/AP

Why?

Because I, along with more than half a million alumni, graduated from Penn State – a renowned and respected institution that, despite its history, accolades and educational merit, is experiencing resounding backlash following a recent report indicating one of the largest cover-ups in higher education history. While critical of a number of University leaders, the report places the most blame on once-revered football coach Joe Paterno, who allegedly helped conceal years of child abuse at the hand of Jerry Sandusky for fear of bad publicity.

While we already know Sandusky will face life in prison, it will still be years before the enormity of this case is fully understood. Yet, one thing is clear: Penn State faces a long road to reputation recovery – regardless of its estimated $7.6 million investment in public relations support.

Regrettably, nothing can eliminate the devastating reality of the Sandusky scandal. However, the way Penn State initially handled the crisis did little to deflect the damage incurred by the University as a whole, with errs in PR judgment including:

  • Delayed Response: When a crisis emerges, “no comment” or delayed responses to media doesn’t make a problem go away. In fact, it makes it worse, giving media the opportunity to speak for you. The University knew the grand jury was considering charges against Sandusky since at least March 2011, but despite ample time to prepare statements and proactive measures, was slow to respond when the news first broke.
  • Misdirected Support: When then-President Graham Spanier finally issued an initial statement on behalf of the University, he expressed unconditional support for his colleagues. This sentiment should have focused on no one but the victims, accompanied with clearly defined action steps for moving forward.
  • Inaction: In the words of Arthur W. Page, “Public relations is 90 percent what you do and only 10 percent what you say.” While Penn State fired Paterno and Spanier almost immediately, the University again did little to show its support for victims and what actions it would take to ensure this behavior was never again repeated. In fact, it was Penn State students, alum and parents who took the reins of this initiative by partnering with Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, to raise more than $500,000 for the victims.

 Next Steps for Repair

Today, Penn State’s PR and communications professors, including Steve Manuel, senior lecturer of public relations, are using the University’s PR missteps in its handling of this tragic situation as an opportunity to teach students what not to do in crisis communications. Of the scandal when it first surfaced, Professor Manuel stated in a guest lecture:

 “All the magnificent things Penn State has done over generations are on one side of the ledger. Jerry Sandusky is on the other. One has nothing to do with the other, and the University needs a massive campaign to emphasize this.”

For such a campaign to be successful, however, Penn State must not try to reemerge from the scandal as the Big Ten football school it was once most admired for, but as the institution of academic excellence it is. This shift of priorities and culture is the only way to ensure a clear line of separation between the University and the Sandusky scandal – and the only way that all stakeholders can truly begin to heal. In recognition of this truth, Penn State recently removed the symbolic Joe Paterno statue and gracefully accepted the harsh penalties announced by NCAA today, a hopeful indication the University is ready to take steps in a new, redefined direction.

For current students, alum, staff and fans, this moment doesn’t erase the “WE ARE Penn State” mantra we’ve loyally stood by all these years. Rather, it provides a significant opportunity to show “WE ARE” more than football; “WE ARE” doing our part to make the world a better place; and “WE ARE” learning from the mistakes of others to ensure nothing – not even the risk of bad publicity – compromises our integrity ever again.