The Freeh Report Fallout: Top 3 Crisis Communications Lessons of the Penn State Scandal (Plus Video Analysis)
By Gerard Braud, Crisis Expert, Braud Communications
Every business, university, government agency and non-profit organization should use the Penn State scandal and yesterday’s release of the Freeh Report (download it here), which exposed the school’s cover-up, as a time to review their crisis communications and crisis management procedures. Here are the top 3 important lessons you should learn:
The number one lesson every organization must address is DENIAL. Historically, powerful people in prominent institutions think they can handle the matter “in house” to avoid embarrassment should the event go public. Wrong!
Embarrassment, reputational damage and financial loss are always greater because of DENIAL and the associated cover up. This is true for Penn State. This is true for the Catholic Church. This may be true where you work.
So what should you do? The Penn State case is a classic smoldering crisis. A crisis event occurred, the event should have been investigated before it went public, and a plan should then be crafted to take the issue public under your own terms. Penn State should have a) reported the alleged crimes to the police, b) held a news conference to announce their actions, then c) move on with only minor embarrassment, minor reputational damage and minor financial loss.
As this case has proven, by the denial of top officials, the embarrassment and long term harm are much greater, including the crimes against children and the high probability of more criminal charges resulting from the cover up.
Events like Penn State, as outlined in the report, show a systemic behavior of unethical, immoral and criminal behavior by powerful people and major institutions.
Ethics should be defined in any organization as acting in private the way you would act if you were in full public view. Therefore, if the entire Penn State stadium were filled with people listening to the university president and board discuss the issue in 1998, what decisions might that group of powerful people have made.
Common sense says that when an event like this happens, especially if it is in your sector, you should gather leaders together for a frank discussion about a) how you might handle a similar situation and b) what secrets, issues and vulnerabilities exist where you work. Sounds logical, right?
The reality is few if any institutions, nor their executives, nor their public relations teams, use another entities crisis as an “ice breaker” to initiate frank, vital discussion, which should lead to better planning.
How do I know this? Because logic says my business, and that of my colleagues in the field of crisis communications, would see a swift up-tick in business after certain major crises. But conversations with colleagues bear out that business seldom, if ever, fluctuates as a result of a major crisis.
Many companies experience their own crisis and still do nothing when it is over to prepare for the next one.
I always suggest that a crisis as a time to review your vulnerabilities – which you should do every quarter. A crisis like this should be cause to review, update or write a new crisis communications plan – a crisis communications plan should be a living document that is never completed, but that grows each year. Finally, a crisis like this is a reminder that you and your leadership team should conduct at least one crisis communications and crisis management drill each year – this will test your crisis communications plan, your speed of communications, and the moral compass of your decision makers.
The Penn State crisis is not over. More embarrassment, more reputational damage, and more criminal charges will follow.
Gerard Braud (Jared Bro) is an international coach, trainer, author and speaker, who has worked with organizations on five continents. Known as the guy to call when it hits the fan, he is widely regarded as an expert in crisis communications and media issues.