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Penn State: crisis communications in crisis, Part 2

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The Penn State brand is huge. It has 95,000-plus current students. Now add in everyone who lives in the town, works at or for the university, all of the alumni and the number of people directly affected, and you have more than a million.

As introduced in my previous blog on crisis management, during the crisis that unfolded late last year involving charges of child sex abuse, the Penn State board of trustees failed spectacularly in its role of chief defender of the Penn State brand.

I think we all can agree that this situation cried out for crisis management starting with the first allegation, no matter who wound up being charged. Why? Well, nearly every definition of crisis includes some very obvious elements, including a clear and obvious threat to the organization, a condition of instability or upheaval causing emotional distress, and a short decision time.

One only needs to consider two celebrated corporate crises to see parallels: 1) the Tylenol tampered capsule case of the 1980s, and Johnson & Johnson's response, thought to be an example of crisis communications handled well; and 2) BPs handling of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, generally considered an example of what not to do.

Here are five stupefyingly obvious elements of good crisis management that the Penn State board of trustees appears to have ignored.

  1. Don't panic. Arguably the most important step is to take a deep breath and get your act together. You must do this expeditiously, but remain focused and lead your team in the right direction. In the Penn State case, the board of trustees panicked and fired head football coach Joe Paterno a scant four days after the Centre County grand jury charged a former assistant coach with sexual abuse of minors.
  2. Identify and assess the crisis. Clearly define the problem. Put it in a box to focus public opinion lest the fallout have a domino effect on other areas of your business. In contrast, the board fired Paterno just 48 hours after Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly stated that Paterno was not a target of the investigation.
  3. Establish a crisis communications team. Assign roles and responsibilities. Take input. Provide updates and resolutions. Now is not the time for secret meetings that reek of evil cabals bent on little more than CYA (“cover your a**.”). But secret meetings—which, by the way, violate the bylaws of the Penn State board of trustees—were exactly how the board handled the ousting of Paterno. Several board members have very little stake in the Penn State brand and appeared to be trying to distance their own brands from this crisis.
  4. Lead by example. This is your time to show the world what type of organization you are. Do not place blame, at least until the crisis is over. Show a united front. Show your internal and external stakeholders that they can count on you when the chips are down. Once the facts are known, then take the necessary measures. Do it swiftly and decisively to demonstrate that you expect your employees to uphold your high standards. Instead, in the Penn State crisis, Gov. Tom Corbett went on talk shows to blame several people, including the initial whistle blower.
  5. Perform a crisis post mortem. This is an especially crucial step for any organization concerned with quality and integrity that hopes to emerge with its brand reputation intact. You need to assure your public that this type of crisis will never be repeated. With Penn State, the board of trustees convened members of the board to investigate itself, but perhaps an unbiased group might be a little more convincing.

Every business can experience a crisis at some point or another but it doesn't have to wreck the brand. Just ask yourself … would you rather be Tylenol or BP?

(Coach Paterno was as mortal as the rest of us, but he was a truly remarkable man. RIP, Joe Dec. 21, 1926–Jan. 22, 2012. --G.S.)

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