Penn State Lessons and the Sin of Spin: When Cowards Take the Easy Way Out
I recently had the opportunity to participate in a realistic risk exercise involving scores of local state and federal officials. The purpose of the day- long event was to allow participants to implement emergency response plans, coordinate activities and practice responding to an incident that threatens public safety in order to protect the public should a real life emergency occur.
As an observer and evaluator of communication tactics and strategies, what impressed me was the constant attention of every participant across multiple agencies to protect those who were affected by the threatening situation that was unfolding. To their credit, no one asked how they could protect their organizations reputation but instead at every turn of events, the focus was on protecting the public from harm.
I couldn’t help but wonder what Penn State officials might have learned from this group of admirable people whose sense of responsibility prompted them to do the right thing. As a Penn State alum, I’m not writing this article to defend or bash Penn State. There’s enough of that going around and the stories kept coming all weekend long (ranging from critiques of the school’s decision not to tear down Paterno’s statue to continued analysis of the Freeh report). As a former reporter and communications consultant, I do believe there are valuable business lessons to be learned from the misplaced priorities of a powerful few.
As former FBI director Louis Freeh’s scathing report (available here) pointed out “the facts are the facts.” While society sometimes reserves different rules for different people, this sad story should remind all of us that no one should be immune from doing the right thing regardless of income, status, power or relationships. For leaders and business owners, this should also be a reminder that you set the standard and no personal relationship regardless of circumstances should compromise the integrity of your business or those around you.
Regardless of the nature of your business or unique company culture, there should be a steadfast sameness when it comes to responsible behavior and communication. Applying these three core principles will help you do the right thing when the wrong thing is taking place.
Tell It All and Tell It Fast
The Penn State sex abuse scandal simmered for fourteen years before it finally boiled over. That means leaders had more than a decade to pull their heads out of the sand, take responsibility and prevent others from becoming victims. By not swiftly and decisively addressing their problems, the ugly behavior continued and university leaders made the situation far worse. In today’s 24/7 news cycle, it’s more important than ever to report your own bad news and tell people what you are doing to make sure it never happens again.
Take It Personally
Instead of focusing on covering your own butt, approach every situation as if this were happening in your own family. What would you do if your own child or loved one was a victim? How would you right the wrong? Speak with the same unbridled compassion and outrage you would unleash if something unspeakable happened to someone you care about.
Take the Word “Spin” Out of Your Vocabulary
Look no further than the BP oil spill to learn what not to do. Spinning should be reserved for bicycle classes at the gym.
Strong leaders tell the truth, develop action plans and messages that focus on victims. Strong leaders answer tough questions even when the answers aren’t pretty. They choose difficult paths that are often met with resistance.
Cowards take the easy way out.
Karen Friedman is a professional communication coach, speaker and chief improvement officer at Karen Friedman Enterprises (www.karenfriedman.com). She is the author of “Shut Up and Say Something: Business Communication Strategies to Overcome Challenges and Influence Listeners” and winner of the Enterprising Woman of the Year Award.