Saturday, July 14, 2012

Penn State's Crisis is NOT a Crisis Communications Failure

As much as anything else, crisis communications requires courage. Leaders must be able to, with limited or incomplete information, make the right decisions, even if they are difficult. Penn State’s leaders, specifically Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier, Gary Schultz and Tim Curley, failed abjectly in their responsibilities as the Jerry Sandusky scandal came to light in 1998 and 2001.
The report by former federal judge and FBI Director Louis Freeh is gentle when it says the four leaders at Penn State demonstrated “callous indifference” to the victims of Jerry Sandusky. The actions of Joe Paterno and others at the highest level Penn State is inexplicable. 

They knew about Sandusky’s activities (the extent to which is in dispute) and did nothing about it except to give him a nearly $200,000 retirement payout, an emeritus title and unfettered access to Penn State facilities. It's what they thought was the "humane" thing to do. 
The report highlights an obsessive desire to avoid bad publicity. Legacy, reputation and public adoration for an icon were more important than protecting children from a serial predator.
Gerald Braud wrote a great post about what should have been done from a crisis comms perspective, and he’s absolutely right when he lists the actions Penn State should have taken. But this isn't a crisis communications failure. It's a leadership failure. 

It's not as if the communicators ever got close enough to make a recommendation about how to proceed. Senior people covered it up. You can't blame the field-goal kicker for the loss if he never gets on the field to try and win the game.
I also believe that if the communicators did know about what was going on, they likely would have been unable to convince their leaders to do the right thing or have been complicit in the chosen course of action. I know that’s cynical, but they all drink the same water in Happy Valley.
Several people have asked me how Penn State can rebuild its reputation. I'll write more about that in the days ahead. The way ahead is straight through. Get all the facts out and make changes so this doesn’t happen again. The facts are going to be ugly and painful, but it is the only way through.
Hindsight is always perfect. The Paterno family insists that the coach didn’t know the extent of what was going on. It’s the same defense the university president, the senior VP for finance and the athletic director are using. Except leaders aren’t paid to have perfect hindsight. Leaders are paid to make difficult decisions with imperfect facts. 

The Freeh report makes clear they had enough information to stop the abuse 13 years before Sandusky's arrest. Instead, they let idol worship and fear lead them to a catastrophically wrong choice.
When they got a report that Sandusky raped a ten-year old boy in the Penn State locker room, they chose football.
Bill Salvin