Penn State Had Plenty of Time, but It Didn't Have a Crisis Plan

Its Best Hope for Restoring the Brand Is for the University to Control Its Message

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I have a confession to make: I am a graduate of Penn State University. I now have to post about something I never thought possible -- the implosion of that storied higher-education brand. What should have been done to prevent it? And what should the university do moving forward?

For those of us who care deeply about Penn State, this past week was mind-numbing; what happened in Happy Valley felt surreal. I am deeply saddened by the shocking revelations; few crimes are more horrific than the sexual abuse of children. But this is a media blog, and it's also a story of failed communication opportunities, and continued missteps by many of the people involved. Much of the finger-pointing, media hype and irrational accusations could have been avoided.

How? Pretty simple: with a crisis communication plan.

The grand jury testimony took place months ago. Coach Joe Paterno, university President Graham Spanier and other senior-level administrators were subpoenaed long in advance of last week's breaking news. University officials had more than enough time to prepare for a media hailstorm. Yet, when the news broke, there clearly was no plan.

Administrators had to scramble to hire a PR firm to handle crisis communication. I mean, c'mon folks. This is Reputation Management 101. No plan in place? No PR agency on standby? The result was that no one was in charge of Penn State's message. Social media platforms were lit up. Rumors swirled for days, whipping America into an angry and judgmental frenzy. That's what happens when there is no spokesperson.

When the message is out of control and public anger is white-hot, high-profile people become targets, sometimes unfairly. Take Paterno. The coach admits he should have done more by reporting the abuse he had been told about to the police. Yet in much of the media he was painted as a criminal, and he was fired in a sloppy, public manner. Joe is not a criminal; assuming he's guilty, Jerry Sandusky is . Paterno is a man who has done so much good for so many kids, students, athletes and charities over six decades, but his 'brand' was overlooked while he was publicly tarred and feathered.

Managing a crisis effectively does not make the guilty innocent. It doesn't make the victims less sad. It just allows the public to receive well-thought-out messages, in a timely manner, via credible channels. People can then absorb the news in an intelligent, rational context. And good people don't get swept up in a wave of emotions.

Finally, after a week of irrefutable harm to the Penn State brand, interim President Rodney Erickson, led with the first steps of a plan to restore pride and integrity to the university. It's a start. What's next for my alma mater? Here are steps the university ought to consider to rebuild the Penn State brand:

  • Continue to channel all communications through the university's most credible source. At this time, it's the interim president. This will help eliminate rumors and innuendo.

  • Speak with candor. What allegedly took place hit the rawest of nerves among decent people. The public expects facts, delivered with sincerity and authority.

  • Penn State should align itself with, and support, a credible organization whose mission is to prevent and counsel victims of sexual abuse. It would be best if this were a national organization, as Penn State draws more than 35% of its students from out of state. Even more important, this is Penn State's opportunity to take a national leadership role in preventing sexual abuse.

  • Monitor social media platforms like Facebook, and Twitter for negative messages. Engage those who posted them with dialogue, and if the posting were incorrect, with facts.

  • Communicate proactively with students, parents, alumni, administrators, high school guidance counselors, Pennsylvania elected officials and other influencers.

  • Retrain PSU's high school recruiters. They need to be on the same page as the university president. Many 12th graders and rising seniors are now either pulling their applications or reconsidering applying to Penn State. Swift, thoughtful training of the recruiters can help stem the defections, and start to turn the brand around.

  • Shoot a video with high-profile Penn Staters, providing an objective point-of -view about the university. It should include current students as well as alumni. The message should speak to the situation, be genuine in its tone, and lay out the interim president's new plan to restore pride and integrity. It should also provide a url to donate to a designated organization to prevent sexual abuse of children. Deliver the video via the university e-mail data base, on its web site, and on Youtube, among other media vehicles.

These are but a few ideas to help re-build the Penn State Brand. As events continue to unfold, it is wise to make sure any marketing plan is flexible enough to adapt quickly to breaking situations.

I believe the school will recover, but it will take time. And a good plan

Sound off in our poll: As far as Penn State itself is concerned, is the sexual-abuse scandal beyond the power of crisis communications and PR at this point?

Marc Brownstein is president of The Brownstein Group, Philadelphia.
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