08 November 2011

Accountability and crisis PR at Penn State

You learn a lot about a person, and an organization, when times are tough.  We are certainly learning a lot about the leadership and the culture at Penn State this week.

You may already know about the epic scandal that has engulfed the university and more specifically the football program.  A one-time top assistant coach is arrested for sexual assaults or advances on several young boys over several years on Penn State's campus - some while he was on the job, some after he retired but still had full access to the football program.  Two top university administrators are arrested for perjury and failing to notify authorities of the alleged crimes. Transcripts from a three-year grand jury investigation become public, and the details are horrifying. A graduate assistant saw a particularly disturbing event involving the assistant coach and a young boy in the shower - he didn't intervene, but chose to inform the legendary head coach about the incident the next day.  That head coach called the athletic director on a Sunday, and then did little if anything else.   Apparently, no one checked on the victim, or even tried to find out who he was.

I won't get into how this makes me feel as the father of a young boy - it would degrade into a lot of profanity really, really fast.  But as a PR guy I can give some observations on how they're handling it now - not well.

If this saga isn't surreal enough, we see only a small trickle of fairly predictable, vanilla, approved-by-legal-counsel statements, complete with "thoughts and prayers going out to the victims" that they never chose to contact.  That is, until the head coach's regularly-scheduled Tuesday press conference intended to promote next week's game.  Reporters received these instructions the night before:
Media planning to attend Tuesday's Penn State Football weekly teleconference are advised that that primary focus of the teleconference is to answer questions related to Penn State's Senior Day game with Nebraska this Saturday. Head coach Joe Paterno and any Penn State Football student-athletes in attendance will be answering questions about the Nebraska game, Penn State's season thus far and other topics related to the current college football season.
And when it became apparent that this profoundly tone-deaf statement wasn't going to prevent several questions about the obvious issue, media received this announcement:
Due to the on-going legal circumstances surrounding the recent allegations and charges, we have determined that today's press conference cannot be held and will not be rescheduled.
From a crisis PR standpoint, canceling may actually be the right move, at least for now.  You can't put a spokesperson out there who isn't prepared to deal with tough questions or defend the indefensible. But it does show how feeble the program's position is.  These charges were NOT a surprise to those involved, and the leadership could have had something prepared for this.  In short, their lack of courage as the crisis unfolded - you know, to "protect the reputation of the program" - has limited their options today and has harmed their reputation even more.

What a shame the leadership of this fine institution lacks the courage of, say, young boys from disadvantaged families who were allegedly sexually abused by a popular authority figure  - but spoke up anyway, knowing how their stories would be received in that community.

Because, as one of the victims put it, "I just don't want this to happen to anyone else."

So here's a bit of free PR advice to the good folks in Happy Valley - if you're not in the mood to talk anyway, just keep your mouths shut.  I don't want to hear any talk of rallying around your coach like he's some kind of victim here. I don't want to hear any cliches about "overcoming adversity" or "circling the wagons" or "us against the world" or whatever.  Tell your coach and everyone else involved that it's time for a fresh start. Right now. Write some checks with a lot of zeroes to the victims' families.  Encourage other victims to come forward and get them help.  Remember - this is not about Penn State Football's future, or the coach's future, or even the university's future - this is about a group of young kids who were horribly victimized and then had the courage to report the truth.  THEY and their families are the heroes.

You'll never be able to make this right.  But you can make it better - start by holding people truly accountable, asking for forgiveness, and working to make sure this never happens again.

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