Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How Penn State Made an Awful Situation Worse

Penn State's lack of response to Jerry Sandusky's crimes made things worse
Image via Deadspin
Brent Axe was kind enough to have me on his show on the Score 1260 today discussing the horrific situation going on at Penn State. When I'm not writing bad jokes on the Internet, my day job is in public relations and crisis communications, so was able to apply a little real world knowledge to the biggest sports topic of the moment.

I wasn't going to write about the situation because like you, the whole thing make me sick. However, since I spent some time pulling my thoughts together on the topic for the radio show, I thought I'd provide a brief outline of how Penn State has made one of the worst possible situations an institution can face even worse.

First let me say while Penn State has failed miserably at handling the public relations aspect of this situation, this isn't something public relations can fix. The lives of an untold number of innocent children have been destroyed and no public response is going to fix that. The fact that it seems pretty damn clear that a number of adults at Penn State could have stood up and prevented some of this abuse is appalling. Again, no PR spin is going to help that.

However a firestorm rages and it burns hotter and hotter every hour that the Penn State administration fails to respond. Here is how Penn State threw a tanker truck of gas on an inferno.

1. They wildly underestimated the size and scope of the story.

This story broke Saturday afternoon. It was met with a couple of weak written statements from athletic director Tim Curley and V.P. Gary Shultz. Incredibly, school President Graham Spanier initially issued a written response saying he stood firmly behind these two men.  I'm not sure how grown, educated men can think a perjury case that involves the rape of children will only be a perjury case. If this was merely a perjury case, a written statement might of sufficed.  This  is so much more than that.

As you can see from three days of inaction, Penn State had no plan to deal with this going forward.  If they did, they would have implemented it by now.  They didn't think it would get this big and they thought they could hide behind "letting the legal process run its course." They couldn't have been  more wrong.

2. They have met a public outcry with silence. 

In a crisis situation, time is of the essence. The longer a person or group hides from the media and the public, the more guilty they look. Combine that with a case that alleges grown men acted in collusion to protect a child rapist, and Penn State looks even more culpable. This isn't a case of who told who what. This isn't a case about how an institution's chain of command should function  This is a case of Penn State not protecting children from a sexual predator. It is on every network. It is in every newspaper. It is on every web site. It demands an on-camera response.

Regardless of how an institution or organization works - a response needs to be issued as quickly as can be credibly formulated. Even if there are multiple factions, committees and interests at play, the organization must cut through those, select a spokesperson, and start providing information from its perspective as soon as possible.  The story is moving with or without them and the silence coming from the "guilty" side is a void that's readily filled by outraged voices.

The spokesperson that is selected needs to be someone who can speak credibly and with authority and deliver an honest message to the public.

Penn State has holed up and went into a shell. They have tried to tell reporters what kind of questions they could ask, cancelled press conferences and muzzled Joe Paterno. Although to be fair, Paterno can speak any time he wants since he's larger than life in that state. He's just being a coward too.

As a result of this silence people are wondering what else Penn State is covering up, why they are hiding and how deep does this scandal really go. Silence makes everyone in the administration look guilty. Penn State already looks guilty and the longer they are quiet, the guiltier they look.

3. They have not taken responsibility, showed empathy, or proven they are going to fix this.

Boys have been hurt in the most heinous fashion possible. We have not heard a meaningful word from Penn State about how sorry they are for these victims. We have not heard from them that they are going to work with the authorities, launch a full investigation, and hold people accountable. We have not heard how they will do everything in their power to immediately start fixing the problems that got them to this place.

By Sunday, or Monday morning at the very latest, they needed to have a public message that echoed those sentiments. They needed a message that took responsibility and set a course of correction.  If he's guilty - and it sure looks like he is - Jerry Sandusky is a monster who lied and deceived people for years. Many of those people worked at, or went to, Penn State. Instead of outrage being focused at him - and the presumably small number of people who helped cover up his evil - a whole institution has been tarnished - because Penn State didn't communicate.

Frankly at this point it's too late for Penn State to deliver these messages. Rest assured, they will come, but they'll need to be delivered by a new administration and a new football staff looking to establish credibility as honest communicators.Graham Spanier, Joe Paterno and the administration had a brief window to try and tell their side of the story. They missed it, and missed it badly. They'll pay with their jobs -- and frankly I'm fine with that.


dannymac said...

Does that mean the crazy old man behind the screen door press conference or the low class PSU pep rally on his front lawn didn't help?

Russianator said...

yes and yes - the pep rally in support of Joe Pa was as offensive as anything so far.

don't forget the pics of joe pa smiling as he's driving to practice in a bmw. that was nice too