When big mistakes bring major news coverage, students and professionals often ask me, “Why didn’t you blog about that?”
In this case, there isn’t a helluva lot to say.
The principles violated by Penn State administrators and coach Joe Paterno are lessons we teach in PR 101. But most of the mistakes aren’t about PR — they’re about human weakness and moral failing. Most of us learn that stuff by the time we’re 7.
The mess that unfolded this past week can’t be fixed by an army of the smartest PR practitioners. It’s just not possible. But since I’m PR educator, I’ll share four PR 101 takeaways from the case, and a bit of the pain I’m feeling.
Lesson One: You can’t polish a turd. Arthur Yann and Keith Trivitt make this point yesterday on the PRSAY blog, sans the turd. Penn State’s troubles aren’t a failure of the PR mechanism. They’re the result of irresponsible decisions by those in charge. It’s a PR disaster, yes. But not a result of bad PR practice.
No matter what Penn State or its PR staff had done following Sandusky’s arrest, it wouldn’t have changed much. There is no defense for any of this. Even if the trustees fire JoePa on the first day of the crisis, nothing changes substantially. So don’t blame the PR folks.
Lesson Two: People aren’t logical. Me included. I’ve been a JoePa fan since he took the reins from Rip Engle in 1966. My dad is a Penn State alum. My brother was in the Blue Band. My uncle was captain of the basketball team in the early 50s and has called JoePa a friend for over 60 years.
This story cuts deep in my family. So I understand the initial reaction of those who rallied to Paterno’s side. It’s something you do for people you love and respect. No one wanted to believe Joe did wrong, but it’s become pretty clear he did. So now we deal with it.
Lesson Three: Crisis management sometimes means little. PR pundits around the social web are criticizing Penn State’s crisis response. Whatever. Do you really think firing JoePa 3 days earlier would have mattered? Or holding a press conference immediately would have “gotten them out in front of the crisis”? Pshaw.
The damage was done the minute the State Police issued its report. So let’s not quibble over how Penn State’s public relations officials dealt with it. Besides, the lawyers were the one’s in charge of those decisions. You know it, and I know it.
Damage control in the wake of a tsunami does little to alter the effects of the storm.
Lesson Four: The folly of coverup. Sooner or later, the truth tends to come out. And when it does, the impact is magnified by any coverup. Ohio State learned last summer — a petty incident when you compare it to this one — but a career-ending move for another legendary coach just the same. And let’s not forget Richard “I’m not a Crook” Nixon.
At Penn State, human nature overpowered those lessons of history. It is simply basic instinct to “protect your family.” In this case, the Penn State football family. That instinct often comes with a dose of denial and a measure of misguided loyalty. That such instinctive behavior ignores the kids victimized by Sandusky is beyond pathetic.
Still, it’s human nature. We lie about the bad things we do. Ask Bill Clinton.
There’s no ethical dilemma in this case — no conflicting principles to debate. But there is a lesson for young professionals, be they in PR or any other career track. When bad stuff happens, reveal it and deal with it. Immediately.
Joe Paterno is not an evil man. He’s a man who made a bad decision. But we can’t overlook the impact of that decision. The victims here are the kids who may have been saved from Sandusky had someone — anyone — done the right thing. The damage to Penn State’s reputation is inconsequential compared to what those boys endured. JoePa and everyone else involved will have to live with that.
For those of us who admired JoePa, it’s a painful time. He was a godhead symbol — the “Pope of Happy Valley.” And that, my friends, is an unfortunate, but apt analogy.
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Update: My friend Rob Jewell, PR pro and former colleague, offers some excellent insight over at PR On the Run. Check it out.