Penn State: crisis communications in crisis

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Crisis management consists of dealing with situations after they have occurred. As a practice, it falls under the executive management umbrella, requiring skills of leadership, communication and organization.

Most of you loyal blog followers are probably not aware that I write to you from what was once “Happy Valley,” the land of Penn State University and legendary head football coach Joe Paterno. So naturally I cannot help but write about the disaster that recently befell the bucolic town of University Park, Pa.

I write not to weigh in on the legal and moral matters of the child sex-abuse scandal, but rather to shine a light on the colossal Penn State/Paterno brand, and the damage done to it by poor crisis management.

Yes, I know—who cares about a brand when there are innocent victims? But one does not preclude the other. The Penn State Board of Trustees, led by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, handled the crisis with all the aplomb of a Civil War battlefield amputation. The left leg was bleeding profusely, so they employed a neck tourniquet.

The biggest shock in all of this is that the board of trustees was shocked. Gov. Corbett, who was the attorney general leading the investigation when it began in 2008, appears to be the most shocked of all. Corbett—who knew far more than anyone else, knew it sooner, and was responsible for protecting the people of the valley, now excoriates anyone he can find in order to distract attention from himself.

The board is charged, in part, with the care of the Penn State brand. Yet, despite the fact that current Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly declared that Paterno would not face criminal charges, the first thing the board did, in November, was to sacrifice Paterno, the most prominent but least culpable person.

When asked at a packed news conference why Paterno had to be fired immediately, board vice chairman John Surma replied, "I'm not sure I can tell you specifically."

Compounding that bit of idiocy, the announcement was made in the middle of the night to a throng of Paterno's most ardent supporters. Next, in a fit of hysteria, the board threw the PSU brand to a rabid media hell-bent on sensational headlines. Then, and only then, did they decide to conduct an investigation.

So what is leadership to do when the media are pounding at the gates? Well, panicking is the obvious rookie mistake, as is taking “swift and decisive” but arbitrary action. It's like getting your first Little League hit and running at full speed with supreme confidence … in the wrong direction around the bases.

Fanning the flames is another bad idea. When thousands have gathered in support of a local legend, this might not be the best time to announce you've excommunicated him. You don't appease sharks by chumming the water.

Apologizing or making amends for things you haven't done only fuels conspiracy theories. Self-flagellation makes you look pathetic. A rush to make amends for this demonstrates that you really must have done something horrible if you feel this guilty about it.

And, of course, holding secret meetings in undisclosed locations does nothing to allay the fears of the black helicopter crowd.

I'll address in a future blog how strong crisis management could have helped protect this venerated brand.

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