Sports, among other things, can serve as a respite for fans to forget about ills in the
world. This week, the wicked face that stared us from our computer and television screens came from the world of sports.
As a sports fan, I hoped what I read wasn’t true. As someone who respects the history and the legacy Joe Paterno established at Penn State University and its football program, I looked for the smallest nugget of proof he didn’t harbor a child molester. A child rapist. For the sake of children everywhere, I hoped the story was a horrible rumor.
This post isn’t to rehash what has ruled our media waves this week, however. You can do that with a glance at a timeline and simple googles of “Jerry Sandusky” (the perpetrator), “Joe Paterno” (the now former legendary Nittany Lions’ head coach) or “Penn State” (the university at which the scandal began and was likely the place where many of the alleged heinous acts took place). This is to outline the most embarrassing public relations effort I’ve ever seen and how much of it could have been prevented. Penn State’s PR effort ranks right up, er, down there, with BP Oil, inaction to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and in what seems so unimportant, now, Tiger Woods’ fall from grace.
Penn State’s initial public relations stumble occurred Saturday night after news emerged that Sandusky was arrested and arraigned on 40 criminal counts. It was further reported that two other Penn State personnel would turn themselves after a grand jury investigation found they perjured themselves. There was no statement from the university, even to ask the media and public for time to further investigate the cases on its own. With no statement, speculation ran rampant among the social mediums. Was Paterno involved? Did he know? No one talked, so the public started talking for it. Within hours, Penn State began to lose hold of its message and image as a school that always had everything under control.
On Sunday, Paterno released a statement that was reportedly written by his lawyer/political strategist son. It was vague and didn’t provide the media anything more than additional questions. Speculation continued and grew.
As the public emerged from its weekend, shook off the Mondays and saw that Penn State director of athletics, Tim Curley and Vice President for Finance and Business, Gary Schultz stepped down from their positions and turned themselves into police, the only “message” from the administration came from a statement that non-football questions would not be entertained at Paterno’s weekly press conference. Only a matter of hours later, the school took another PR tumble when its president’s office abruptly canceled said presser, with reportedly more than 150 media all ready on hand.
Sports and news media blanketed the story by Tuesday. For reasons that you understand if you read the grand jury report, the topic became an emotional one, not just for Penn State and general football fans, but members of the media. I heard at least three radio hosts within 24 hours express anger, disgust and frustration over a story that we knew little about, because no one within the Penn State administration was talking.
The bottom line is that from a public relations perspective, little can change the alleged findings that continue to be uncovered at this hour. The message, however, could have been stemmed with transparency and communication, both of which were nonexistent from a state university that had an impeccable image nationwide.
I hope that other universities, regardless of size, watch this case carefully and learn from it. There are elements of what I’ll call, PR 101, that if put in place and implemented, could have made the Penn State situation a less contentious one for a university that was about to become the subject of every media report throughout the world within a matter of hours.
PR 101 Crisis Communications Plan
• All universities should have a crisis communications plan. It will be an outline — a parameter for what course of action will be taken in the case of crisis. Can it be implemented as it appears on paper? Likely not. But use it as a guideline to designate spokespeople and gathering places for media. Be prepared to face the best and worst of anything.