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 http://www.mediabistro.com/prnewser/paterno-announces-retirement-says-penn-state-has-bigger-issues-to-address_b29902
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