10 November 2011

Accountability and crisis PR at Penn State, continued...

The leadership at Penn State (or more accurately, what's left of it) tried to stop the proverbial bleeding last night.  They held a 10pm press conference announcing the immediate departure of the university's president and its legendary head football coach.  However, from this vantage point, the press conference is little more than a marginally effective tourniquet.  It's going to get much, much worse for Penn State before it gets better.

First, it's clear that several very important details haven't been made public yet.  That's the only explanation for the Board of Trustees' decision to keep an assistant coach who witnessed an alleged rape of a minor and did nothing more than tell the head coach the next day.  One of the reasons the head coach was dismissed was to avoid the spectacle of him on the field on Saturday - yet by retaining the implicated assistant coach, the enduring image of this game won't be a tackle or a touchdown, but a picture of the assistant coach on the sidelines.

By retaining the rest of the staff - especially the witness - the Board looks like they're taking actions based on PR rather than principle. Some of the more responsible members of the media are asking the "what did they know and when did they know it" questions of a lot of people - it's just a matter of time before they start asking those questions of the rest of the coaching staff.  The new interim head coach has been on the Penn State football staff for 33 years - is it even remotely possible that he knew nothing of this?  Six members of the coaching staff have been there 15 years or more - no doubt working closely with the alleged rapist for years.  Were they all completely in the dark, even though two members of the staff have already admitted knowing?  If the true criteria for dismissal is knowledge of the problem and inadequate response, why are these men still working? Absolutely none of this information is a surprise. And based on this, I'm quite confident the Board is seriously considering forfeiting the rest of the season. Yes, it's unfair to the athletes - but honestly, what other choice does the board have if it claims to hold this principle?

Further, one core component of crisis communications is understanding the dynamics of speaking to different audiences. It's clear that there are two audiences in this case - Happy Valley and everyone else. Last night's press conference was obviously aimed at a national audience, but the first to respond was a local one.   Before the vice chair of the Board of Trustees could even take breath after his statement, two members of the local media shouted a question in unison - "Who is coaching on Saturday?" For the rest of us, that question couldn't be further from our minds.  But by failing to understand both audiences, and more specifically failing to understand what the entirely predictable reaction by locals would mean to the alleged victims - they actually added insult to injury.  They should have kept the alleged victims in the loop.  It's just the latest example of how the alleged victims are still not the top priority.

This is the downside of (pardon the pun) lionizing a person and a program as an infallible "institution" for so long.  In the Middle East, college kids are protesting (and risking their lives) because they want democracy and human rights.  In Happy Valley, college kids are rioting because they think the old man should get a pass for shielding an alleged serial rapist. And then they're mugging for the cameras.  (The Internet is forever, idiots.

Sadly, the Board can't do much more right now to address its reputation - because, as I said yesterday, the lack of courage demonstrated over the years has tied their hands today.  

And now what was eight alleged victims swells to seventeen and counting

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