How Penn State PR students gathered community for vigil

February 6, 2012

By Kyle Harris and Jessica Sever

The Pennsylvania State University has always had a strong reputation for its integrity, tradition, honor and academic rigor. It is also famous for its football program and for having the winningest coach in Division 1: the late Joe Paterno. It is this tradition and reputation that makes this a University that we, as Nittany Lions, are proud to attend.

So when the child sexual abuse allegations arose against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, we were angry.

We were angry with Sandusky because if these charges were true, then he has robbed children of their innocence.  We were angry with university officials who appeared to care more about reputation than justice.  We were angry with the media who parachuted on our campus, sticking microphones in our faces to cover what people are referring to as the biggest sports scandal in modern history.

As PR students paying thousands of dollars to earn a degree at a university with one of the top communications programs in the country, we were also upset with how the school was managing the crisis.

Communicating proactively

The rules of crisis management dictate forming and communicating messages quickly.  The rules also call for a crisis plan and proactive communication. We learned all of this in our PR classes, yet we did not see the university applying any of it.

The one statement issued by former University President Graham Spanier — two days after the grand jury report went public — gave “unconditional support” to two University officials facing perjury charges. By showing support for officials who may have covered up years of child abuse, instead of expressing disgust for the charges and concern for alleged victims, our school had mishandled an opportunity to tell the world that Penn State was horrified and would work to ensure that finding truth and justice were priorities.

Additionally, no one ever issued an internal message during those first critical hours or days. In our PR classes, we talked about what the university should be doing and saying.  As we dissected the media coverage, it was evident that Penn State was doing the opposite of what someone should do in a crisis situation.

We were so outraged by how our university handled the scandal, that on the Tuesday after the news broke, we decided to take Penn State’s PR tactics into our own hands.

Three things were apparent to us: There was little media attention on the alleged sexually abused victims, all the focus was directed toward university officials,  Joe Paterno and the football program — and students were falling apart. We needed to shift the focus, create positive messages about our beloved University and peers, and unite our community. Our answer was to organize a candlelight vigil on campus.

Taking action

We set the candlelight vigil for Friday, Nov. 11, which gave us three days to organize and promote the event. We registered the event with the university to take place in a free speech zone on the steps and field of Old Main — Penn State’s administration building.

We knew that social media would be the best way to reach our college-based audience. By the end of  Tuesday, we had set up a Facebook event page, called Candlelight  Vigil for Abused  Victims, and a Twitter account, @PSUHope

We began circulating the Facebook event page through the Penn State community by sending hundreds of invitations to our friends. We primarily used our  Twitter account for distributing and updating vigil information, such as asking people to bring their own candles and listing the names of stores where they were still available.

Through these social media tools, word spread quickly.  Within 24 hours, 3,000 people on Facebook indicated that they would attend the vigil. Students who had organized a pep rally around the same time canceled it, encouraging people to attend the vigil instead.  And Penn State’s student government donated $1,000 for extra candles. Individuals and musical groups requested to speak and perform at the event.

To further promote the event, we sent emails to the listservs of Penn State organizations.  And because so many media outlets were on campus — and the University wasn’t communicating to them — we hoped that they would help us deliver our message.  We also walked around and hand-delivered our media advisory and media pitch to reporters. Before and after the vigil, we conducted more than 30 interviews with reporters ranging from CNN, ESPN and TMZ to the local newspapers and TV stations.

On the Friday morning of the vigil, we had more than 10,000 Facebook fans. By the day’s end, this number had grown to 11,000. We were still skeptical as to how many of these people would actually attend — right up until that evening when we looked out into an illuminated Old Main lawn covered with our peers, faculty and staff, alumni and community members — standing united for victims of child abuse.  We had never been prouder to be a part of Penn State than we were while standing on the steps of Old Main that night, singing the words of our alma mater.

Thinking positively

Looking back, we know that we are just ordinary students who recognized a problem and chose to act. By doing so, we opened an outlet for a frustrated Penn State community to express themselves in a positive manner. We raised internal morale and shifted the focus to the ones who are most important — the alleged victims. We told the world that we cared. By accident, perhaps, our vigil that night served as a catalyst to begin healing and rebuilding the school’s reputation.


Kyle Harris is a senior PR major in the College of Communications from Worcester, Mass. He is the drumline captain for the Penn State Marching Blue Band.

Jessica Sever is a senior PR major in the College of Communications and Communications Arts and Sciences from Garnet Valley, Pa. She is a member of the Lion Ambassadors, Penn State’s student alumni corps.


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