Crisis as Opportunity

Through the last few weeks, we have explored various means of saving the reputation of an organization in crisis. From reframing arguments to apologizing and promising to making it right, we have many tools at our disposal to turn the conversation in a way that is, at most, beneficial to the organization’s reputation or, at least, less harmful to it. But, what happens when the crisis is so detrimental to the organization’s reputation due solely to flagrant immoral or illegal conduct? Can a crisis communications plan be of any help?

On November 5, 2011, former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested facing 40 counts of criminal activity, including a number of counts of sexual assault on a minor for incidents relating to Penn State’s association with The Second Mile charity, founded by Sandusky, over the course of 15 years (Garcia, 2011; “Sandusky,” 2011). Two days later, Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and senior vice president for finance and business Gary Schultz surrender to police to answer charges for failing to notify authorities for suspicions of sexual abuse of a minor (“Officials,” 2011; “Sandusky,” 2011). In two more days, football legend, Joe Paterno, head coach of the Penn State football program, resigns amidst the controversy surrounding the university and its football program (Garcia, 2011; “Sandusky,” 2011). Within days of the arrests (and, before all the facts are known), the university is being excoriated in the news (Zinser, 2011). This, I believe, constitutes a public relations nightmare.

Trivitt and Yann (2011), of the Public Relations Society of America, present the case of the Penn State crisis as a reminder that public relations and crisis managers cannot fix every problem: “we think it’s important that, as a profession, we don’t overreach and try to uphold our work as the savior for every societal tragedy and crisis. Doing so makes us look opportunistic and foolish considering the gravity of the situation” (para. 13). In the case of Penn State, there were a number of opportunities for the assaults to be reported to the authorities, yet Sandusky was allowed to remain in close unsupervised contact with young boys until, finally, one of the victims contacted the authorities in 2009 and an official investigation was initiated (“Sandusky,” 2011). The best thing that Penn State could have done was to report the accusations to the proper authorities as soon as they were made aware, saving the administration from allegations of a cover-up or their collective morals being called into question (Sudhaman & Holmes, 2012). The perception, now: cover-up and morally corrupt. There were a number of moral obligations that representatives of the university failed to abide over the preceding years, and the reputation of Penn State will suffer for it.

Immediately following the break of the scandal, the Penn State administration scrambled to make appropriate efforts towards repairing the poor reputation of the university, including donating $1.5-million of football profits to sex crimes advocacy programs, suspending the school newspaper’s sex column, and holding a town hall type meeting where students can pose questions and concerns directly to school administrators (Sauer, 2011). Though these steps are good, ultimately, the only means of recovering the reputation that Penn State once held is time and a changing of the guard; however, this does not mean that Penn State is suffering. According to Reuters (Shade, 2011), applications to attend Penn State are up from last year, and the current school administration, as well as alumni, are coming together to strengthen the trust between the school and students. Further, Singer (2011), a crisis communications and reputation management specialist, describes the steps the university can take in the coming years to truly restrengthen its brand. Singer emphasizes <em>cleaning the slate</em> by firing any other employees directly associated with the scandal, <em>creating a team-centric leadership culture</em> by limiting the political power of any one person within the university (especially the head coach), and <em>living the values</em> put forth by the university (e.g. “Success With Honor”). So long as the crisis is handled appropriately since the mass firing of school officials, the school’s reputation will be judged on the response to the crisis and not the crisis alone.


Garcia, T. (2011, November 9). Paterno announces retirement, says Penn State has bigger issues to address. PRNewser. Retrieved from

Officials seeking alleged abuse victims. (2011, November 9). Retrieved from

Sandusky, Penn State case timeline. (2011, November 9). Retrieved from

Sauer, A. (2011, December 1). Penn State bogs down in PR crisis, but a turnaround already showing. brandchannel. Retrieved from

Shade, M. (2011, December 1). Penn State officials say applications up despite scandal. Reuters. Retrieved from

Singer, J. (2011, December 7). The Penn State scandal: crisis as opportunity. The Business of College Sports. Retrieved from

Sudhaman, A. & Holmes, P. (2012, January 25). The top 10 crises Of 2011. The Holmes Report. Retrieved from

Trivitt, K. & Yann A. (2011, November 9). Public relations won’t fix Penn State’s crisis. PRSay. Retrieved from

Zinser, L. (2011, November 9). Memo to Penn State: Ignoring a scandal doesn’t make it go away. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Public Relations and the Media

Using a fictitious scenario about an international airline company addressing the media after one of its planes had crashed, I will examine the usefulness and limitations of a crisis communications plan. It is also worthwhile to note that although the messaging is important, the manner in which the message is delivered is also important. Battenberg (2002) lays out a compelling case of which tactics to use and which to abandon when dealing with a media frenzy.

Media Questions

As a member of the media, there are some very specific questions that need to be addressed. For instance, was the crash a result of weather, aircraft maintenance, or was this a terrorism event? In addition, recent layoffs of its mechanics coupled with its aging fleet of aircraft might have contributed to the crash and needs to be addressed. Other employees were laid off in addition to some mechanics. It would be important to know if more experienced members of the flight crew were among the lay offs, as this flight was trans-Atlantic and might require some specialized expertise.

Public Relations Response

According to Coombs (2012) and Fearns-Bank (2011), the response to the media needs to be truthful and humble. The cause of the crash will eventually be determined by the federal investigators, and any assumptions now would be premature. This should be clearly stated to the media along with a statement that every effort to assist in the investigation will be made. In regards to the lay offs, it should be made absolutely clear that, along with our dedication to safety, the lowest performing mechanics and pilots were the ones laid off, keeping the most experienced and skilled mechanics who would never sign off on any unworthy aircraft. An example statement might include: “In our corporate culture of safety, we allow any of our employees to trigger a grounding and complete safety check of any of our aircraft for any reason, even with our recent financial difficulties. If we do not fly safe, then we do not fly.” If the company would ground all similar aircraft for an immediate safety check, it would be helpful to reinforce the ideals of the corporate culture of safety.


As the public relations officer addressing these media concerns, I would be sure to answer these questions as humbly and honestly as possible. I would try to rely on the messaging provided in the crisis communication plan. However, in light of recent financial difficulties and layoffs, the plan may prove partially inadequate, though it will provide, at least, a framework to ensure the messaging is consistent (Coombs, 2012; Fearns-Bank, 2011). Obviously, information will be limited as the crash just occurred; however, the concerns of the recent layoffs and service expansion still need to be addressed. Any assurance of safety that is less than matter-of-fact might not be convincing enough to the flying public (Stevens, Malone, & Bailey, 2005). Fortunately, I am able to cite the impeccable safety record and award-winning corporate excellence and customer service. Additionally, other sections of the communication plan, such as messaging involving lay offs and other financial issues, might prove useful to help the public and the media further understand the company’s dedication to safety, ensuring that any problems identified will be quickly rectified (Coombs, 2012; Stevens, Malone, & Bailey, 2005).

Though the position of defending the corporate image in light of tragedy is not an enviable one, a strong and ethical corporation deserves to enjoy business continuity even after such a tragedy (Stevens, Malone, & Bailey, 2005). Having an effective communication plan in place and utilizing the plan in an honest, humble, and transparent manner can promote the corporate image even while suffering crises (Coombs, 2012; Stevens, Malone, & Bailey, 2005).


Battenberg, E. (2002, December). Managing a media frenzy. Public Relations Tactics, 9(12), 1, 15. Retrieved from

Coombs, W. T. (2012). Ongoing crisis communication: Planning managing, and responding (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Fearn-Banks, K. (2011). Crisis communications: a casebook approach (4th ed). New York, NY: Routledge.

Stephens, K. K., Malone, P. C., & Bailey, C. M. (2005). Communicating with stakeholders during a crisis: Evaluating message strategies. Journal of Business Communication, 42(4), 390-419. doi:10.1177/0021943605279057

Crisis Counseling: Senior Management

As a crisis management professional, it would be my job to assess the situation, define the crisis, and develop a plan that would address stakeholder concerns allowing the company to move forward with, hopefully, minimal negative and maximal positive impact to the organizational reputation (Coombs, 2012). The Intel Pentium flaw did not impact Intel’s reputation in 1994 as much as preceding inattention to quality that modeled consumers’ perceptions and production and marketing irregularities that computing insiders were quite aware (Mihaiu, 2001). Even as recently as last year, Intel has been plagued with poorly performing processors (Fontevecchia, 2011). I believe that many of the processor issues were merely a result of being cutting-edge in a fast-paced competitive environment, though Intel’s reputation need not suffer from inattention to that fact. The problem: convincing the CEO that a) there is a crisis, b) this crisis needs to be dealt with (costing money), and c) it needs to be dealt with openly and ethically in order to maximize the reputation of the company.

Previously, as a computer programmer and analyst, I was intimately familiar with Intel line of processors, and I can attest to the overall positive reputation Intel has enjoyed since moving into the consumer computing arena; however, as stated above, the company’s reputation was not always seen in a positive light. Using my familiarity with Intel, my primary suggestion to the CEO regarding the Pentium debacle would be to remain honest and open with external publics while making the situation right. The honesty of the situation should be accepted by many consumers so long as Intel garners a net positive reputation. This net positive should be reinforced with the professed willingness of correcting the situation. The message should be: “We are on the cutting-edge of computing and consistently push the envelop in leaps and bounds, and we cannot always get everything right, but we can make it right… and, we will!”

The CEO, however, may decide that the situation is minimal and not unlike others that the company has faced in the past. Dealing with these issues previously may have created an air of complacency that needs to be countered in order to prevent further cumulative effect on the reputation of Intel. Regardless, as Coombs (2012) points out, if implementing a crisis management plan “improve[s] the situation and benefit[s] the organization, its stakeholders, or both” (p. 125), the situation should be approached and handled as crisis. The ethical dictum of “do the right thing” should provide for, at least, the fundamental guiding principles in responding to any issue, which would help to ensure that negativity is deflected and minimized appropriately. A CEO who has no appreciation of the gravity of the circumstances may need to be reminded of this in order to prod him into action.


Coombs, W. T. (2012). Ongoing crisis communication: planning, managing, and responding. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Fontevecchia, A. (2011, January 31). Chip recall hurts Intel’s reputation, tablet fears a bigger problem. Forbes. Retrieved from

Mihaiu, R. (2001, July 3). Intel’s tricks! Retrieved from