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Penn State: Analysis of Crisis Communications

On November 5, 2011, Jerry Sandusky, former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach, was arrested on a number of counts of sexual assault on a minor. The arrest stems from incidents relating to The Second Mile charity, founded by Sandusky, and its association with Pennsylvania State University over the course of 15 years (Garcia, 2011; “Sandusky,” 2011). Two days later, the Pennsylvania State University athletic director, Tim Curley, and senior vice president for finance and business, Gary Schultz, surrendered 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, Joe Paterno, head coach of the Pennsylvania State University football program, resigned over 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 was being severely criticized in the media (Zinser, 2011). This public relations nightmare is an example of how leveraging a crisis communication plan is important in communicating with the public.

Trivitt and Yann (2011) present this case as a reminder that 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 Pennsylvania State University, there were a number of glaring failures to report the assaults to the authorities. Still, Sandusky was allowed to have unsupervised interaction with these adolescent boys until an investigation was launched in 2009 after one of the victims notified the authorities (“Sandusky,” 2011). Pennsylvania State University authorities should have reported the accusations to the proper authorities and released a statement to the media as soon as they were made aware, saving the administration from this crisis (Sudhaman & Holmes, 2012). The perception, however, is that there was a cover-up of moral corruption. There were a number of moral requirements that university representatives failed to acknowledge over the past years, and the character and esteem of the school will suffer for it.

Immediately after the revelation of these transgressions, the Pennsylvania State University administration clambered to make the proper attempts towards repairing the school’s suffering reputation, including donating $1.5-million of profits received from the renowned football program to sex crimes advocacy projects, discontinuing the school newspaper’s sex column, and providing a town hall- type venue where concerned students could present their questions and concerns directly to school officials (Sauer, 2011). Ultimately, these steps are proper; however, the only means of reclaiming and recapturing the admirable reputation that Pennsylvania State University once held is time and requires purging those administrators who appear sullied by this controversy. This does not, however, mean that Pennsylvania State University is languishing. According to Reuters (Shade, 2011), applications to attend Pennsylvania State University have increased in the last year, and the current school administration, as well as alumni, are uniting to restore the trust between the school and students.

Further, Singer (2011), a crisis communications and reputation management specialist, outlines the steps necessary for the school to truly enhance its brand. Singer highlights cleaning the slate by terminating any employees explicitly related to or having perpetuated the crisis, creating a team-centric leadership culture by restraining the political power of any one person within the school (especially the lead coach), and living the values that are proffered by the school (e.g. “Success With Honor”). If the crisis is handled appropriately from this point forward, the school’s reputation will be judged not the crisis itself.


Coombs (2012), Fearn-Banks, (2011), and Hendrix and Hayes (2010) all agree that crises are unexpected events that are difficult to anticipate; however, the communications focus should not be placed on specific problems that have a low probability of materializing but to have broad and general preparations in place to address unanticipated concerns as they arise.

Hendrix and Hayes (2010) provides an emergency checklist that organizations could adopt to better prepare to respond rapidly to a crisis. Analyzing the Pennsylvania State University response in retrospect by applying the concepts within this checklist will show how poorly prepared the administration was in responding to this crisis. What is glaring in the analysis is that the administration was on the defensive throughout the entire crisis. It seems that they were either unwilling or unable to get in front of the story. Hendrix and Hayes, as well as Coombs (2012) recommends utilizing a central resource as a clearinghouse to disseminate information to and from external publics. This communications center could also serve as an incident knowledge-base for those internal publics requiring more information. Further, preparation, again, is explicitly stated and is a requirement to quickly respond to media inquiries within the hour recommended. Although it is unclear if Pennsylvania State University incorporated a public information center, it was clearly not effective if it was, indeed, instituted.

Another issue that was contentious throughout the crisis and gave the appearance of a cover-up was the lack of full disclosure on the part of the university. It is understandable that the administration might have been caught off guard; however, this is no excuse to appear defensive and largely silent.

The Pennsylvania State University administration later contracted with a public relations firm to restore the reputation of the university. This should have been done much earlier.


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.

Garcia, T. (2011, November 9). Paterno announces retirement, says Penn State has bigger issues to address. PRNewser. Retrieved from http://www.mediabistro.com/prnewser/paterno-announces-retirement-says-penn-state-has-bigger-issues-to-address_b29902

Hendrix, J. A. & Hayes, D. C. (2010). Public relations cases (8th ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Officials seeking alleged abuse victims. (2011, November 9). ESPN.com. Retrieved from http://espn.go.com/college-football/story/_/id/7203566/penn-state-nittany-lions-sex-abuse-case-officials-arraigned-police-seek-alleged-assault-victim

Sandusky, Penn State case timeline. (2011, November 9). ESPN.com. Retrieved from http://espn.go.com/college-football/story/_/id/7212054/key-dates-penn-state-sex-abuse-case

Sauer, A. (2011, December 1). Penn State bogs down in PR crisis, but a turnaround already showing. brandchannel. Retrieved from http://www.brandchannel.com/home/post/2011/ 12/01/Penn-State-Bogs-Down-In-PR-Crisis-120111.aspx

Shade, M. (2011, December 1). Penn State officials say applications up despite scandal. Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/12/01/us-crime-coach-students-idUSTRE7B00GD20111201

Singer, J. (2011, December 7). The Penn State scandal: crisis as opportunity. The Business of College Sports. Retrieved from http://businessofcollegesports.com/2011/12/07/the-penn-state-scandal-crisis-as-opportunity/

Sudhaman, A. & Holmes, P. (2012, January 25). The top 10 crises Of 2011. The Holmes Report. Retrieved from http://www.holmesreport.com/featurestories-info/11377/The-Top-10-Crises-Of-2011.aspx

Trivitt, K. & Yann A. (2011, November 9). Public relations won’t fix Penn State’s crisis. PRSay. Retrieved from http://prsay.prsa.org/index.php/2011/11/09/public-relations-wont-fix-penn-states-crisis/

Zinser, L. (2011, November 9). Memo to Penn State: Ignoring a scandal doesn’t make it go away. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/10/sports/penn-state-fails-a-public-relations-test-leading-off.html?_r=1&ref=sports