Penn State’s New Reality: Searching for Lessons in an Inexcusable Tragedy
By Jeff Halliday, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies, Longwood University
Anyone closely following the Penn State sex abuse scandal is likely more than familiar with the names Paterno, Spanier, Curley, Schultz, McQueary and, most notably, Sandusky. And while the latter name will forever remain the most malicious and prominent, each university official had a significant role to play in what, according to all reports, appears to be a tragic farce of implausible proportion.
However, Penn State’s administrative approach to this crisis, which can only be described as total failure to proactively assess and permanently resolve, appears to have pervaded well beyond the names currently being cycled in media reports.
Working from the details provided in the countless stories spilling out of Happy Valley, the Penn State athletics office and university administration just essentially wrote a “Dummy’s Guide to How NOT to Conduct Organizational Communication” for public relations-related personnel, scholars and corporate/academic leaders.
A Failure to Communicate
If Sandusky was banned from using the facilities in 2002, it’s not far-fetched to assume the list of people who should have been privy to that knowledge could have included any/all of the assistant/associate athletic directors, of which Penn State currently has seven. Additionally, the athletics operations and communications staffs were either left unaware or joined their superiors in not enforcing the ban.
The refusal to communicate or implement the ban is both sickening and staggering.
As this story continues to come to light, the nature of Sandusky’s annual football camps will be further scrutinized. He hosted these football camps at (at least) one of Penn State’s satellite campuses until 2008; that’s six whole years after McQueary testified to a grand jury regarding him observing Sandusky sexually assaulting a young boy. Those camps were exclusively for boys in grades 4-12, and included overnight stays. Promotional material for the camps described a “lifetime opportunity to work hand-in-hand with one of the greatest coaches of all time.”
Additionally, according to Associated Press reports, Sandusky used the team weight room sometime between Halloween and his November 5th arrest. Word is he had an office on campus. Some ban.
At this time, it’s unknown if any other university personnel were made aware of what Sandusky was accused of doing. It’s unlikely the whole truth will ever make its way to public eyes.
The PR Takeaways
There are some lessons here for those who keep a keen eye on organizational leadership and crisis communication. Penn State’s officials failed to properly own the message and permanently resolve the situation in time. That seems to fit with the history of how they handled the entire affair.
What did they do right? Not much, if anything. It took four days to get a statement from their Board of Trustees. University authorities weren’t prepared for a social media-developed student march that forced police officers to rush to Paterno’s home. Scott Paterno, the coach’s son and an attorney/former political candidate, became the face of the story after the administration abruptly canceled Joe’s weekly press conference. And, as far as media relations are concerned, the handling of that press conference represented a crucial, multi-tiered error.
After the story erupted on Saturday, the university left the press conference on the schedule. That’s forgivable as they likely didn’t know the nature of what was unfolding. Then, they made a incredibly naïve faux pas by telling the press Coach Paterno would only take questions related to the upcoming game versus Nebraska.
If Fight Club’s first rule is to not talk about it, the first rule of PR is to not tell reporters what questions they can’t ask. Cats don’t want to be herded, and journalists like being told what to say about as much as a toddler. With the press conference building into a nationally televised event, the university then decided to cancel it 40 minutes before it was scheduled to begin. Roughly 200 media members arrived for the press conference having paid for travel and lodging, booked satellite windows and prepared for the story. By canceling the conference, they essentially simultaneously loosed nearly 17 dozen reporters to stalk Penn State’s campus, its practice facilities, the Paterno residences and local community looking for reaction.
Undoubtedly, Penn State is going to clean house as a result of this scandal. Meanwhile, corporate and academic leaders, as well as public relations personnel/scholars should heed this warning: Teach and train your people to understand public opinion/perception can destroy a brand’s reputation far faster today than ever before. The mighty fall hard.
Hindsight can’t repair the damage done by not proactively assessing and permanently resolving an organizational crisis.
Jeff Halliday, assistant professor of communication studies at Virginia’s Longwood University, leads the media reporting and broadcast production courses. He is lead adviser to the campus newspaper, The Rotunda, and faculty adviser to the student radio station, WMLU. Previously, Halliday was a sports reporter/anchor for WDTV-5 in Bridgeport, WV and was named the West Virginia Associated Press Broadcasters Association’s “Best Sportscaster” in 2005. Halliday earned a master’s in broadcast journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.