PR Lessons Learned From the Penn State Scandal. The Penn State story has been a lesson in what not to do in terms of crisis management from a public relations perspective. In a world filled with social media and news literally happening and breaking 24/7, companies (and in this case a university) cannot afford to wait or mishandle a major news event. It requires preparation, and considering the state of Pennsylvania was working on a two-year investigation, the school should have been ready for this. CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell wrote a piece today entitled “Penn State Gets an ‘F’ In Crisis Management 101.” In it, he says:
“What makes things worse is that Penn State somehow has been completely unprepared to address the charges since authorities indicted former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky and arrested administrators Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley on charges of failing to report and perjury in front of a federal grand jury.”
We asked The20’s @AmyZQuinn, a journalist, teacher and graduate of Penn State, along with @anniemal, a Philadelphia-based social media and public relations professional, to weigh in on what the school has done well, what they’ve done poorly and what can be learned in terms of PR. Their responses are below.
What have they done well?
@amyzquinn: “The only thing I think the university itself has done that rings true, PR-wise, is the statement the Trustees put out Tuesday night. Forceful, obviously angry, and forward-looking. Unfortunately it came a full day too late. Paterno’s statement, while obviously well-crafted, struck a sincere, authentic and heartbreaking note. The front-step pep rally on Tuesday night was a bit much for my taste, but I doubt we’ll see more of that.”
@anniemal: “There’s very little they’ve done well up to this point. The first beacon of hope I’ve seen is Paterno’s statement, issued today. It’s thoughtfully crafted and masterfully worded.”
What did they do wrong?
@amyzquinn: “From a legal perspective, it’s obvious why the university can’t let President Spanier make any kind of public statement — after all, the prosecutors haven’t said he’s clear of prosecution, the way they did with Paterno. But there is a sense of a vacuum of leadership right now. The trustees tend to be a largely faceless group, unknown to most students and alumni, so with Spanier in seclusion and Paterno on his way out, there’s no one person to look to.”
@anniemal: Just about everything. They waited too long to address the allegations after the story had gone wide online and in mainstream media, they seem to have little to no university position on the allegations, communication to the student body seems to be non-existent (based on how the students are reacting) and canceling Paterno’s press conference was a misstep. There’s a lasagna theory to crisis. When that lasagna is cooking, people can smell it. And they’re hungry. Hold off from serving it and they’ll break your door down for it. Cut them a sliver and they’ll be hungry for more. Best thing to do is serve the whole thing and let them gorge themselves. Often you find they’ll eat less when it’s all on the table.
What lessons can be learned?
@amyzquinn: That silence and hubris are destructive. That sometimes our love and belief in something larger than ourselves can blind us to horrifying truths. That we all like to think we’d do something to stop a child rape happening in front of our own eyes, but we can never really be sure. That while Penn State is a worldwide family of millions of people who share a common blue-and-white gene, Penn State is also a business.
@anniemal: Best insight I’ve heard thus far on the case came from Darren Rovell on twitter: What Penn State teaches us: Fail to manage the crisis & in today’s world, you have no chance.
Rovell says it best at the end of his post:
“What allegedly happened and how the chain of command failed is devastating. But as we’ve seen with other scandals, the inability to deal with something that went wrong in the right way makes things worse. The web, and now Twitter, require that the necessary reaction time be quicker than ever before, which means you have to have a plan before the news hits. Unfortunately, for Penn State, the best case study in crisis management for the kids that take that course at their school, will likely now be their own.”
[@darrenrovell, CNBC, @anniemal, @amyzquinn]
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