Wagging the Dog: Penn State’s Crisis Offers Guidance to Other Universities and Institutions
By Michael Fineman, President, Fineman PR
Penn State isn’t the only NCAA major conference school with serious public relations issues related to their athletic department. Athletic programs are fraught with challenging circumstances given the combination of natural immaturity on the part of students, the high financial stakes confronting university administrators, and adulating fans willing to turn a blind eye to unholy doings in the name of winning.
Potentially high profile issues cannot be buried for long. Whether athletes have been injured during hazing, provided with money or expensive toys, are involved in drug use, or engaged in sexual harassment or outright felonies, the media and community will ultimately hear about it. Yet even when what is embarrassing or criminal is uncovered, many schools go silent or flat out stonewall as though not addressing the issues will make them disappear or minimize the damage. There are many stakeholders in a university’s reputation, but, unfortunately, many of them are left to depend on the judgment and wisdom of school athletic departments, a risky business.
You would think the Penn State example provides the impetus for change, but will it?
To protect their hard-earned reputations, colleges and universities need balance in their communications to reinforce the notion that they stand for something beyond athletics. Here are some recommended practices:
- Place greater and more active emphasis on news about academic and research achievements and scholarship. The corollary—when people search the Internet for your school, help them find quotes beyond those of your coaches and athletic department head.
- Media train respected campus voices—professors, Board Members and administrators.
- Consider tabletop drills as a way to prepare key staff for worst case scenarios; test reporting protocols.
- Conduct regular community meetings with neighbors, local businesses, civic groups and clubs.
- Design and develop an active, perhaps interactive, website for various audiences, separate from that which serves students.
- Be vigilant in monitoring all traditional and social media channels to be sure you have a real-time read about what is being said about your institution or current hot issue, and be ready to respond appropriately and in a timely fashion.
- Reinforce codes of conduct and ethics for student athletes and for all students, faculty and administrators.
- Be transparent in addressing student athlete misdeeds if they are publicly “outed” by local media; make sure your audiences get the message that you are on top of the issue, that you are intolerant of these misdeeds, and communicate what you are doing to further limit the possibility of these situations reoccurring.
- Develop scenarios that address potential exposures, provide foundational statements that can be used for these scenarios (prepared in advance but customized later for actual incidents), identify trigger points for when communications will be necessary, and delineate the kinds of communications mediums available and appropriate for the incident in question.
- Be sure your athletic department understands the need for student athletes to be culturally aware of their educational environment and local community. These students must know that their athletic scholarships also obligate them to be positive brand ambassadors for their schools, and they must learn how. It’s part of helping them become successful and responsible adults to know they are part of a tradition much larger than themselves. Hire a life coach. You owe it to them.
The majority of major conference schools and their athletic departments are run by principled men and women who shoulder their responsibilities for the lives of their young charges admirably. There’s some, though, with secrets that haunt their sleep. If you’re a university officer or board member, be sure you put measures in place to secure your school’s integrity as more than an athletic team. Don’t be the dog wagged by its tail.
With more than 25 years of public relations, crisis communications and corporate consulting experience, Michael personally directs the agency in creating and implementing award-winning programs that have consistently met and surpassed client objectives. He is nationally recognized for brand building, creative and strategic counsel and programs, and crisis communications success. Michael started his agency in 1988, initially serving real estate, technology and professional service organizations. Today, the agency is well known for consumer.