Can PR Save the Penn State Brand?

Jury's Still Out, But Message Is Effectively Shifting Discussion in Media

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Can the Penn State brand be saved?

That's still to be determined, but so far the PR message that deflects media attention away from the child-abuse scandal to the broader issue of football permeating university cultures seems to be working. At least, that is , it's been effective in diverting much of the media discussion away from whether the school attempted to cover up the scandal toward the subject of over-zealousness over football programs in universities in general.

The latter, of course, it's more likely to be forgiven for. But on the marketing partner front, forgiveness isn't coming fast enough. General Motors has threatened to discontinue its sponsorship of the school and giant insurer State Farm said this week it "will not directly support Penn State Football" TV broadcasts this year, taking care to note the decision was made well before the NCAA sanctioned Penn State. The company noted that "advertising rights and sponsorship around Penn State basketball for 2012 remain unchanged."

The Penn State board of directors hired former FBI agent Louis Freeh in late 2011 to do a thorough investigation into the facts and circumstances of the school's actions -- or inactions -- surrounding child abuse committed by former employee Gerald A. Sandusky. In his report Mr. Freeh stated, "It is up to the entire university community -- students, faculty, staff, alumni, the Board, and the administration -- to undertake a thorough and honest review of its culture."

After the school publicized the Freeh report, Penn State President Rodney Erickson issued a statement emphasizing the need to address those cultural issues and make decisions that "involve individuals and practices deeply woven into the fabric of our community." He said, "We plan to analyze the many recommendations made in the Freeh Report and begin implementing a number of them as quickly as possible."

Shortly after the Freeh report went public and Mr. Erickson issued his statement, the NCAA imposed punishments on the university and held a press conference during which the organization's president voiced similar sentiments that the school must take a long look at its culture and make a change. The punishments included a fine of more than $60 million, among other costly sanctions.

It's this consistent message of change -- first formulated by Ketchum, crisis counsel hired days after the scandal broke, and now Edelman, which has assumed its place on the account -- that continues to take a small part of the burden off the besmirched brand and turn the media's attention to a deeper issue associated with similar programs at other universities.

A New York Times story about the tragedy represents just one piece of coverage devoting a number of inches to the more widespread issue. It read: "The increase in financial incentives has coincided with a rash of off-field problems, as prominent programs like Miami, Ohio State, Southern California, Oregon and Tennessee have been embroiled in high-profile scandals in recent years."

"The storyline moved on from truly gruesome crimes to a broader issue of big football programs. I'd argue that 's a better place for Penn State to be, but it's an entirely accidental artifact," said Peter Hirsch, exec VP-director of reputation and risk at Ogilvy PR. It's not necessarily something [PR] has done, but it's had a positive effect, he added.

Kirk Stewart, an executive director at APCO and former communications executive at Nike , thought that a more proactive course of action could have served the university well throughout the entire process. "I was surprised that the university didn't step up and do some self-imposed sanctions, as opposed to waiting for the NCAA," he said. "That leadership opportunity may have been squandered. It was a bit surprising." One such action might have been a self-imposed fine similar to that imposed by the NCAA. The University could have then used the money to fund programs around causes like child abuse, he said.

For the school to salvage its brand and begin to heal, it must make an effort to avoid coming across as a victim and continue to acknowledge the need for change, noted Mr. Hirsch. It also needs to look for opportunities to celebrate and promote other sports and academic programs.

"If you find that your company or organization is associated with one brilliant thing [such as, in Penn State's case, football] you should be very skeptical and think about what could happen if something goes wrong," he added. "What to look for is an opportunity to build up other things to make sure you're not so imbalanced."

Russ Williams, senior VP-crisis and issues management at Cohn & Wolfe, said that the way to move forward is through reevaluation of a culture and a concerted communications effort. "The university needs to make a major push toward bolstering its credibility as an academic institution. That requires an ongoing, concerted effort to reestablish credibility with past, current and future students. New faces of leadership beyond those of the athletic program need to emerge. The stories that will win back support for Penn State are not those of football coaches, staffers or players. They are the stories of students doing exceptional work, and the stories of alumni that have achieved greatness as a result of their Penn State education."

Penn State did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Edelman declined to comment.

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