Last November, we had some wait and see recommendations on the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal. In the ensuing months, Sandusky has been convicted of 45 counts of child sex abuse, and this week, the Louis Freeh investigation results landed on the university like a well-deserved ton of bricks. The report provides extensive documentation of school officials creating a false Sophie’s Choice between protecting the football program or protecting the kids in Sandusky’s Second Mile program.
It is hard to imagine how the reputations of Penn State University, the football program, and Joe Paterno could be damaged if they had dealt with news of Sandusky’s activities at the time they learned of them. While there might have been some initial bad press, no one would have judged the institution and its officials badly because of the acts of a sick individual. Fourteen years and many additional victims later, however, there emerges from the wreckage, a remarkable amount of institutional and personal complicity.
There are two kinds of public relations: the PR that comes from an institution’s own communications with the public via media (including now social media) channels AND the PR that results naturally from being a good local, regional, national, and global citizen. Penn State needs to start practicing both forms. Immediately.
Here are some overall thoughts on PR via good communications practices and Penn State’s unique situation:
- Start doing the opposite of what PSU did during this dark period. Hiding things (very bad things) and misrepresenting is what got university officials into so much current trouble. PSU needs to be transparent. Share information, more than less, when asked. Unless a university attorney is advising against making a specific statement (and even then press the point with legal), speak accurately and honestly. The truth shall set you free.
- The nickname for PR is spin. Although politics is involved, this isn’t about winning a campaign. PSU needs to worry less about putting the worst news in the best possible light and worry more about sharing information that is clear and coherent and factual to the audience it is sharing it with.
- Make some tough decisions ahead by remembering to put the interests of students first and with a goal of restoring the brand and integrity of the institution. For instance, much of Philadelphia talk radio yesterday was abuzz about what to do with the Paterno statue and his name on the library. Tough calls, but one host made the point that especially in the case of the statue, seeing it is only going to spark immediate associations with the scandal (it isn’t next to a scale of justice statue determining whether all the good outweighs the bad). Also, there is never going to be a consensus opinion about this man, so don’t look for one. Use the prism of what will be best for PSU and its current and future students.
- There are going to be many other voices on the landscape for the foreseeable future via the past administrators on trial, the Paterno family, attorneys for all, and of course everyone with even a modest connection to PSU with a strong opinion. Some of this represents the parties involved, but the rest represents the court of public opinion. Avoid being sucked into public battles. In fact, the more that some of the parties involved speak directly or through hired mouthpieces at the moment, the worse they sound.
- Accept that some events are going to be out of the university’s control (court rulings, NCAA decisions, etc.), so however much that rocks your world, be prepared to accept the results, act on them responsibly, and move on as best you can.
Where Penn State can make a huge difference is by making a huge difference. It is largely too late to make any good come out of this very bad situation. So focus on doing good, day in, day out, on many other fronts.
- Repair any town and gown fallout locally. This may mean gradually de-emphasizing the football program, which created such an integrated Happy Valley economy by cooperatively helping to create more year-round tourism opportunities to visit State College and surrounding towns. Work to partner with the communities around PSU, so the university isn’t looked upon as an 800 pound gorilla with a football helmet on. Penn State is its own community, but it is interconnected with a wealth of others around it.
- Beef up academic and social outreach programs that teach and practice ethics and morality in business, government, and daily life, especially those that protect and aid the weakest members of society. It is shocking how so many grown men in this situation could not recognize the right thing to do when the welfare of children was at stake.
- Renew an emphasis on excellence in everything, by not letting the scandal distract from important current programs and activities that have nothing to do with the Sandusky mess except a Penn State logo. Look for new initiatives locally, nationally, internationally. One example is an ongoing effort — every year, without fail, kids from Penn State visit the Philadelphia area and many other communities to raise funds for children with cancer. They do this with little fanfare. I suspect by the number of students involved, they raise an amazing amount of funds. As a father of a childhood cancer survivor, I will never ever judge PSU as a whole on the basis of this scandal, because of the annual enthusiastic commitment I see from these students.
- Become Penn State proud again. Don’t let the actions of an unfortunate few define the whole vibrant campus. Look in the mirror and remind yourself that you are going to help many others restore the Penn State name through your own deeds and conduct. Step in when you see a fellow Penn Stater doing something that is going to create a negative impression of the university.
Scandals come and go. The tarnish from this one is not going to easily rub off. But a lot of positive energy over time can diminish the memory of some very bad events and set a course that ensures that something so odious won’t ever happen again. The culture of Penn State needs to change. The university needs new leadership in Old Main and can’t allow itself to be controlled by the gate receipts at Beaver Stadium ever again.
Coda: Ironically, as I finished this post, I received a NYTimes e-alert with a link to this story. There’s no time like the present to begin rebuilding the PSU brand.