PR and the Penn State debacle

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.

10 thoughts on “PR and the Penn State debacle

  1. Great summary and way to turn a painful moment into a teaching one.

    I’ve been battling bitter Ohio State fans trying to compare this to the Tressel resignation this spring, but still maintain that they’re worlds apart. It’s like comparing apples to grenades. You’ve hit on the one thread of similarity here: cover ups don’t work. It’s especially true in the New Media World we live in, but that didn’t impact either of the recent Big Ten debacles.

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts and linking to the PRSA post. I think it’s important for professionals in our field to clarify that the issues here are not our fault. It’s a case of why a PR adviser should have a seat at the table, but my guess is this topic never came up at said “table.” Unfortunate all around.

    Thinking forward, with victims and Penn State’s reputation in mind, I wonder what the next steps will be. What will victims who are brave enough to come forward be offered? How will university administrators control rioting student populations? What statements or messages will be offered to national media (and their audiences), specifically at this Saturday’s big game vs. Nebraska.

    While it’s not a PR pro’s job to fix these problem, now is the opportunity to be active and start to mitigate the damage.

    • I owe you a footnote on that post, Chris. It was your tweet about the PRSAY blog last night that moved me to write. It’s important to remember, as this story unfolds, that’s it’s far bigger than anyone in Penn State PR is equipped to handle. But you can bet a hi-power crisis PR firm has already been called to help with the aftermath. If not, then the Penn State Board of Trustees is asleep at the wheel.

  2. Bill, you are correct. A deficit in leadership caused this mess. The PSU situation falls under the “sometimes you deserve to take your lumps” category.

    As Chris said, what’s left of the leadership group at Penn State needs to start charting a new course. Humility and zero tolerance for lawlessness should be their guiding principles this weekend, but they can do little to control the behavior of students and alums. I see more reputation damage as the media converge on Happy Valley with an eye out for tasteless displays and misbehavior. Fortunately, the OSU and Wisconsin games are away.

    As far as PSU’s long-term reputation — and that is the crucial issue here — whoever is chosen as the new president and football coach will set the tone for the university. Their actions will dictate how quickly the university recovers. (They should read and heed your previous post on candor, eh Bill?)

  3. This quote says it all for me: “Damage control in the wake of a tsunami does little to alter the effects of the storm.” PR is not at fault for the shockingly poor decisions of those involved. Any one on the chain of command had the right to report it immediately – how history could have changed.

    It will be interesting to see how this “storm” plays out for the university as a whole. I wonder how lasting the effects will be and if enrollment will take any hit in the coming year as high school seniors are starting to make decisions soon. I guess that will just be one more thing to add to their plate.

  4. I’ve struggled to wrap by brain around some of the issues at play here, so I’m glad you commented on this from a personal perspective. Among the most disturbing issues is the fact that WE HAVE THE UNDERSTANDING of how and why this type of negligence occurs. To say we don’t is a lie and to blame it on singular “evil” individuals is a serious oversight. Look at history. How many examples do we have of large groups of people allowing atrocities to go on around them because they simply assumed others would speak up, they feared confrontation or for their own security (group mentality, fight or flight, and denial, denial, denial)? And yet this type of stuff continues to happen. What have we really learned, were do we go from here as people and as a society?

  5. It’s events like these that leave you scratching your head. This is a great PR evaluation through and through. However, I’m having issues with the student body response. I understand it’s tough to forget an allegiance to a man who as the face and anchor of such a successful athletic program – but the students are protesting for the smaller picture. Since when should the horrifying treatment of children get overshadowed by the firing of a superstar coach?

    This makes the situation worse for Penn State in my eyes. I wonder if an internal letter of explanation was sent to faculty and students. An email. Something to break it down to everyone who loved the man. Would it be any help? I don’t know. It’s hard to reason with teenagers, right?

  6. Once again, the snobby culture of academia officials shows its ugly face. For those who are unwilling to learn (presidents, chancellors, boards of trustees) no amount of teaching can ever help!

  7. I don’t care for football but I agree with your lesson comments. I was a little stunned when an acquaintance explain the situation to me in his version. It went like this, “In ancient Rome the Emperor kept the peons from thinking about their lowly class and station by entertaining them in the Coliseum. Given this gladiators were well taken care of. They were given women and young boys. Football now entertains the masses and keeps them occupied so the powers that be can can operate unchecked. To do this if some children are harmed along the way so be it.” I found these comments cynical but could see how this man came to believe it.

  8. Bill – This is brilliant. After all the ranting and raving from the news and social world, this is the most just and realistic analysis of Penn-State-Gate I have seen thus far. Your knowledge and insight related to PR and life in general is always an inspiration.

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