With the passing of Penn State’s embattled football coach Joe Paterno and the child sex abuse case pending against former defensive coordinator, assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, I found myself thinking about the public relations fallout of one of the worst scandals in college sports history. As someone that has worked on client-related crises and issues, the way this scandal unfolded was troubling for several reasons.
First, the initial investigation of Sandusky began in 2008; meaning Penn State could have assembled a PR/crisis communications team to help manage the pending meltdown. Also, a crisis plan for the university should have been developed long before the investigation and updated on a frequent basis. If there even was a crisis plan, it was either poorly developed or never implemented.
Additionally, any initial statements issued by the university should have declared decisive and exhaustive action to make matters right. Instead, university officials initially defended athletic director Tim Curley’s and senior vice president Gary Schultz’s handling of the allegations made against Sandusky. Keep in mind, these administration officials, like Paterno, chose not to report the alleged sexual abuse to the police. It also should be noted that former university president Graham Spanier and Paterno released widely panned statements saying they should be released of any wrongdoing.
Toward that end, it appears Penn State’s external messaging has improved very little since the scandal broke. At an alumni town hall meeting last month in Philadelphia, university president Rodney Erickson said the school’s crisis can be blamed on one person: Jerry Sandusky. He also claimed this is Sandusky’s scandal, not Penn State’s. Further, Erickson proclaimed to the crowd, “We’re not going to let what one individual did destroy the reputation of this university.”
Erickson’s statements echo the same denial and shortsightedness that landed Penn State in hot water. I think most would contend the chain of events leading up to the sex abuse scandal was a systemic failure of epic proportion. The continued failure to acknowledge ownership means the university still does not get it from a PR perspective.
Also at the town hall meeting, an alumnus feared the worst was not over for Penn State. She said, “The school wasn’t prepared for the media crush that followed the arrest of Sandusky and the school officials [for perjury] and doubts they’re preparing now for their trials.” If Penn State has not learned anything about the past several months, they had better get busy developing an actionable, comprehensive crisis plan, message points for spokespersons, collateral, etc. to handle the next media circus that assuredly awaits them.