Perspective 2: Crisis Lessons from the Penn State and Sandusky Case
By Dr. Zeny Sarabia-Panol, Professor and Associate Dean College of Mass Communication, Middle Tennessee State University
Freeh’s report shows how misguided and callous Penn State has conducted itself during the entire Jerry Sandusky scandal. Motivated in part by fear of bad publicity and in an effort to protect the university’s reputation (as opposed to protecting the children), Penn State decided not to report the child sex abuse. Penn State’s actions violated and disregarded basic, long-established strategic communication/crisis communication principles in the books.
First of all, this scandal magnified in no uncertain terms the importance of involving and seeking strategic communication input (a.k.a, public relations counsel) before, not after a crisis. Freeh’s investigation also revealed that the in-house counsel for Penn State, minimized the seriousness of the investigation when she briefed university trustees. Have we been told time and again that winning in the court of public opinion is as critical as winning in the judicial courts? Can you imagine the reputational and economic cost Penn State now has to pay as a result of the cover-up?
One of the cardinal rules of crisis PR is to release complete, accurate information including “damaging” information rather than wait for if or when the media uncovers it. This approach will shorten the news cycle and lessen the overall mutilation of the organization’s reputation.
Both the scholarly and professional literature indicate that the leading causes of public anger and loss of confidence were “usually not the crisis itself but refusal to accept responsibility, incomplete or inaccurate information…” In other words, the cover-up or even just the appearance of a cover-up can be more detrimental than the original crisis.
A 1992 Porter Novelli survey also found that one sure way to alienate the public is to put corporate profits ahead of the public interest. In the case of Penn State what is more appalling than putting their reputation ahead of protecting children from sex abuse?
It is quite clear that strategic communication is not and has not been a part of the boardroom decision-making apparatus of Penn State. Otherwise, the university would not have acted the way it did. Who knows if Penn State would recover and how long it would recover from the damage to its reputation; the image that it wanted to protect in the first place.
So the main crisis PR lesson that the Penn State and Sandusky saga teaches us is this: It is wise to always include legal counsel, but to exclude PR counsel is the ultimate folly when it comes to image and crisis management.
Zeny Sarabia-Panol is professor and associate dean at Middle Tennessee State University’s College of Mass Communication. She teaches public relations and does research on strategic communication. She also is the editor of the International Communication Research Journal.