The Public Relations Strategist

Crisis on Campus: Self-Inflicted Wounds Will Slow Penn State’s Recovery From Scandal

January 6, 2012

Penn State University will survive the horrific child-abuse scandal that continues to bring the school brutal criticism and biting ridicule. 

However, the respect, credibility and reputation that it lost will take years to earn back.

Full recovery will require significant changes at the remote, idyllic campus in central Pennsylvania known as “Happy Valley” — changes in the culture of insularity; the strict hierarchical chain of command; and the role of the university’s PR function, whose lack of strategic input was apparent in the way that the school mishandled what is possibly the worst scandal to hit any American university.

To recap briefly: On Nov. 4, the Pennsylvania State Attorney General’s office handed down 40 child sex abuse charges against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, alleging that he abused eight boys during a 15-year period starting in 1994. Athletic director Tim Curley and vice president of finance Gary Schultz — who have since left their posts — appeared in court on Nov. 7 for an arraignment on charges of perjury and failure to report abuse.

The public and media have vilified top university officials for what they see as a cover-up to protect their reputations at the expense of innocent children.

“We all learned again…that the cover-up is what really feeds a scandal crisis,” said Bob Lyons, who was sports information director and later director of public relations during his more than 35 years at LaSalle University in Philadelphia.

As media outlets began reporting on the allegations, Penn State President Graham Spanier said that he was “stunned and outraged.” Iconic football coach Joe Paterno released a statement saying, “If this is true, we were all fooled.” Officials initially mentioned the victims almost in passing, with Paterno saying, “We grieve for them” and Spanier saying, “Protecting children requires the utmost vigilance.”

With those tone-deaf statements — and four trustees who said that they were “shocked” by the revelations — Penn State lost its credibility and control of the narrative. The ensuing firestorm cost both Paterno and Spanier their jobs.

“You need a strong spokesperson telling how you’re dealing with the real problem,” said Jeff Conley, a founder of Stratacomm, a Washington, D.C.-based PR firm owned by Fleishman-Hillard. “The focus in this case must be victims. Penn State was rudderless, unprepared.”

Preparation is key for crisis management

Most scandal crises are public issues run amok. Leaders miss signals, creating an emergency out of something that has been visible but ignored for some time. The public may excuse those officials involved for not knowing exactly when something will occur, but there isn’t any excuse for being shocked or surprised that it happened.

Being prepared with statements and a plan would have given Penn State a chance to accomplish the three goals of crisis management: End the crisis quickly, limit the damage and restore the reputation.

In this case, how could Penn State leaders have been shocked? For starters, the grand jury had been investigating the charges for a year and school officials, including Paterno and Spanier, had already testified. According to news accounts, there were rumors dating back to 1998 about Sandusky’s alleged actions, when police and human services representatives investigated a sexual abuse charge against him. 

A graduate assistant informed Paterno of an incident involving Sandusky and a boy in 2002. And in March 2011, six months before officials released the grand jury report, The Harrisburg Patriot-News named Sandusky as the target of the investigation.  

Insular culture continues to dominate

The university’s culture might explain the surprise — at least partially.
“Penn State is very insular. It’s three hours from Pittsburgh and four [hours] from Philadelphia,” said Frank Bilovsky, who covered Penn State football for 16 years for the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin. “Nobody can cover it like a regular beat.  Nobody can look into them. Sports is an isle unto itself, since Paterno is the most powerful man in State College.”

A former PR practitioner at Penn State, who requested anonymity because of ongoing ties to the university, explained: “We tend to act like a close-knit family, and our priority is doing what’s best for us. ‘We are the school’ is the attitude. We avoid outside opinions and are used to circling the wagons.”

The actions of the Board of Trustees underscore the sense of privacy.  
“The Board’s done a pretty good job since it got involved, showing [that] it was in charge by firing [Paterno and Spanier],” said John Mims, senior partner of Altyris PR and Advertising in High Point, N.C.

Yet the trustees followed that flurry with comfortable appointments. The university named Rod Erickson, a 25-year Penn State veteran, as Spanier’s replacement. Dr. David Joyner, a former Penn State football player and a current member of the board, is the interim athletic director. Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, a Penn State graduate and trustee, heads up the board’s investigation into the allegations. And even Louis Freeh, the former FBI director who is leading an independent investigation into the details of the case, has close business ties with the university.

Dissent can improve decision making

Insularity can lead to knee-jerk consensus and mistakes. Organizations need outside voices. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel economist and a psychologist, urges “adversarial collaboration,” which means including people you disagree with in your decision-making deliberations. 

Penn State should invite dissent to the table as a way to make improvements in the way the school conducts business.

 “Penn State has been an emphatically ‘top-down’ university. Decisions — even about academics — are made by the central administration, and faculty members are ‘consulted’ afterward,” said Michael Berube, the “Paterno Family Professor in Literature” and the director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State. “The administration must start trusting its own faculty. We can help repair what Mr. Sandusky and his enablers have destroyed.”

Erickson, the new university president, pledged to “meet with faculty and students and listen to their concerns.”  

Rather than merely listening to concerns, he should also use “double-loop questions,” which are useful in internal communications. Go beyond asking about concerns. Add an interrogatory loop and ask what constraints have kept the subjects from previously airing their ideas. Double-loop questions allow the probing of fundamental assumptions, which Penn State needs to do as it moves forward.

Finally, the university’s PR officials need to be strategically involved in the process. Early on, after news of the scandal attracted nationwide coverage, a spokesperson from the university’s sports information department handled media relations. In a corporate setting, a division’s PR staff manages stories that affect their particular division. But the corporate PR team must immediately take over a divisional-level occurrence if it has an impact on the entire organization. The crisis at Penn State was never a sports story.

On Nov. 6, the Board of  Trustees hired Ketchum to work with them in managing the crisis. Penn State’s culture and structure hampers the university’s capable in-house communications staff. Fixing those organizational constraints is beyond the purview of public relations. And living with them means that public relations invariably will be called on after the damage has been done.    

“It’ll take a long time for Penn State to regain the trust of its stakeholders,” Lyons said.

Self-inflicted wounds always seem to take the longest to heal.

John Guiniven, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, teaches corporate communication and public issues management at James Madison University.


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