How a Public Relations Crisis Was Well Handled Initially… and Mishandled Afterward
It was a news story about a child molestation case involving an assistant football coach at a college. The news first broke out over the weekend. In most cases, it would have caused a major uproar within the local community, and would have been unlikely to make it to national news.
But this was no ordinary college. It is
which, according to this
article at the New York Times, “had one of the most sterling images in
college athletics, largely thanks to Mr. Paterno and his success in 46 seasons
as head coach.” Penn State
The story, as it is told by the news media, is that Mr. Jerry Sandusky, the defensive assistant coach, had been molesting young boys for many years. The incidents happened at many places, including on university grounds. He was arrested on Saturday (November 5) and charged with 40 counts related to sexual abuse of boys.
On Tuesday (November 7), the university issued another press release, where the Board of Trustees’ expressed sympathy for the victims and their families, as well as “sorrow and anger” at the allegations against
. This press release revealed more
details about the internal independent investigation, including promises that
the “Special Committee” will have all the resources it needs to conduct and
complete its investigation. No restrictions would be placed on the activities of
this committee, and the committee would find out who are accountable and
recommend measures to ensure such an incident does not happen again. Sandusky
So far, so good.
Then, suddenly, on Wednesday (November 8), the Board of Trustees announced that the President of the University, Dr. Graham Spanier, and the head football coach, Mr. Joe Paterno, were terminated with immediate effect. Although the President had presumably resigned after a meeting with the board, Mr. Paterno had not expected to be fired. After all, he was not a child molester, and apparently he had reported to his superiors what he discovered his assistant coach had been doing. Mr. Paterno was not even charged with covering up a crime, unlike two of his superiors.
No reasons were given. A press conference at which Mr. Paterno was supposed to speak at was canceled 45 minutes before it was scheduled to begin that day. The announcement for the cancelation of the press conference was made by the Assistant Athletic Director for Communications.
Do Right? Penn State
For the first three days after the scandal broke out,
public relations team did everything right. Penn State
Time is of the essence where crisis communication is involved. The Board of Trustees convened a special session on Sunday night, a day after Mr. Sandusky was arrested and charged. Given that the Board of Trustees had 48 members (47 now that President Spanier is gone), their speedy response is to be applauded. The Board acted quickly in deciding to set up a Special Committee, releasing more details about the committee two days after they met at short notice on Sunday night. The Board also expressed sympathy for the alleged victims and their families.
The Board of Trustees is identifying members of a Special Committee to conduct an independent investigation. The committee’s findings will be published. The Board promised that all resources will be made available to the committee and no restrictions will be placed on them in going about its work.
The Special Committee will review existing police reporting protocols, and to make recommendations on how to prevent such incidents from happening in future.
will be providing “educational
programming around such topics.” Penn
Have Done Differently? Penn State
If you look at job boards for open positions in public relations and communication at institutes of higher education, you will find that institutes of higher education have a regular public relations team, as well as a separate team for athletics public relations and communication.
There is a good reason for this – college athletics is an industry in and of itself, very different from the brand and community building that the regular public relations team is involved in. Of course it doesn’t hurt that college athletics, being an industry in and of itself, can afford its own public relations team.
The senior management at
should have realized that athletics communication teams, while good at their
jobs to cover college sports-related news, do not have much experience in
dealing with scandals and crisis communication. The regular public relations
team should have taken over managing the crisis communication from the athletic
communication team. Penn State
The athletics communication team was apparently in charge during this crisis, when they shouldn’t have been. Case in point – it was the Assistant Athletic Director for Communications who announced the cancelation of the press conference at which Mr. Paterno was to speak at.
It seemed like there were two teams managing the crisis communication – the regular one which speaks on behalf of the Board of Trustees, and the athletics one which for Mr. Paterno and the football team.
It may be argued that Mr. Paterno should have done more in reporting the sexual abuse incidents allegedly involving his assistant coach, but he was categorically not involved in covering up the incidents. As I argued in cases of Safeway and Planned Parenthood, firing staff during a crisis bodes ill for staff morale. Has anyone considered the morale of the football team during the football season?
Moreover, now that Mr. Paterno has been dismissed, he is free to speak to the news media about the incidents from his perspective. This is especially so since he has not been found to be covering up for Mr. Sandusky’s alleged acts of sexual abuse. Since speaking to the media will not prejudice his case in a court of law (as most lawyers will advise their clients), he has every incentive to speak up to portray himself as the good guy.
Mr. Paterno is a legend. Here is how the New York Times describes him:
In his 46th season as the
head coach, Mr. Paterno, 84, has had an extraordinary run of success: one that produced tens of millions of dollars and two national football championships for the university and established him as a revered leader in sports, but one that will end with a stunning and humiliating final chapter. Penn State
Did anyone in the Board of Trustees think, for a moment, that firing Mr. Paterno would shut him up? On the contrary. A legend like him will likely have many friends, or at least contacts, in sports reporting. Even if he didn’t, does anyone think for a second that if he holds a press conference, he would be ignored by the sports news media?
My suspicion is that there has been some rivalry (“…Penn State president Graham Spanier, despite years of talk to the contrary, showed who ultimately has the final say in Happy Valley;” “…the myth of Paterno controlling all things at Penn State was destroyed”) between Mr. Paterno and President Spanier, and President Spanier decided to take Mr. Paterno down the grave with him.
Unfortunately, as I have pointed out previously, this is the time of the year when newsworthy stories are rare, and we can expect the mainstream news media to milk the story for all it is worth. Short of an earthquake or a new war,
can only hope for
another newsworthy event to take over the headlines. Perhaps Penn
could distract the mainstream media with another story, like student riots or
something. Oh wait, it has
already done that. Penn State