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

25 comments:

  1. This moral holocaust reminds me of the early responses of the Roman Catholic Church to the abuse of young boys by trusted priests. Initially, and for years, the solution at that time was to move the priest to another parish, where he could (and invariably, did) resume the pattern of luring, grooming and victimizing.
    It took years - which probably felt like centuries for the victims - for the church to finally step up and take responsibility.
    This is much more than a PR exercise -
    the university should stop making flagrantly lame attempts at preserving its reputation (already shot, I'd say) and commit itself to and investigation and full and complete disclosure.
    Ironically, caring less about its reputation and more about the damage to young helpless victims will be the very thing that re-establishes trust.
    That, and a clean exit, minus perks, of everyone connected to the mess. Sometimes the right thing to do is just the right thing to do. This is one of those times.

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  2. Jane, thanks for the comment. You are exactly right. Reputation is a side benefit of doing the right thing. Penn State has a ways to go before it gets through this. It will be fascinating to study how they proceed. The Freeh report was a really good first step, but it's just the start. I really appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts.

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  3. Judy Hoffman (via LinkedIn)July 15, 2012 at 12:23 PM

    One of the slides I emphasize the most in my media training workshops says, "Organizations must first DO the right things before they can SAY the right things." When there is no good, solid story to tell, no amount of communications expertise would have been able to make it sound acceptable.

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  4. Exactly, Judy. If you have great communications but lousy operations, you are still going to have a mess. Both have to work together in order for a response to have any chance at reputation repair. Thanks for reading and for the comment.

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  5. Rick Amme (via LinkedIn)July 15, 2012 at 12:25 PM

    Putting Judy's good advice another way, "If you DO the right thing first, then it gives you something to SAY.

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  6. Right on, Rick. I always tell folks I counsel that you can always talk about the actions you are taking to solve a problem. If those actions are focused correctly. In this case, they were taking actions, but they were for the wrong reason. They were more concerned with themselves than the victims. Thanks for the comment.

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  7. Bob Aronson (via LinkedIn)July 15, 2012 at 12:30 PM

    I agree with the assessment that it wasn't a crisis communications problem it was a failure of leadership but it is still a failure of leadership and now it is also a crisis communications problem. Effective crisis management involves saying the right things and taking appropriate action...Penn state has done neither. The school simply substituted one group of insensitive football oriented leaders for another. They just don't seem to be able to grasp the enormity of the problem. From my vantage point it appears that Penn State still cant' decide which is more important, football or rape. Their refusal to strongly condemn the inaction of Paterno and his associates and remove the Paterno statue from the grounds communicates a whole lot. One can only assume the leadership there is being advised by the same PR geniuses that counseled the Catholic church on how to handle the problem of priests raping little boys. This is crisis management at its worst. It seems pretty clear to me that the school just isn't willing to offend the big money contributors to the football program. To allow Paterno's statue to remain on that campus is a reminder that the university places a much greater importance on winning football games than on protecting young boys from lecherous coaches. A university is supposed to be a place where highly educated people impart knowledge and lessons on ethical and moral behavior in modern society. Penn State has abandoned that approach in favor of communicating that nothing is more important than winning football games and the longer they allow that statue to stand the stronger the message becomes that those violated, raped boys just weren't that important.

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  8. Bob, I couldn't agree more. Penn State has a huge crisis comms challenge right now and you point out some troubling facts that the university still doesn't get it. The more I read about Paterno, the more I'm convinced he cared only about himself. He's a hero to many people and that can be a hard thing to let go. The university doesn't get to choose when this crisis is over. The public will decide when it's over. Thanks, as always for reading and sharing your thoughts.

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  9. It's true: crisis communications only happens after you understand there is a crisis. The culture of athletics is due for different leadership everywhere. With every story I read, I hope each new spotlight or revelation slows down or shuts down more abuse today, which is continuing to occur in other athletic programs large and small.

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  10. I agree Bruce. There seems to be a pervasive "sports brings us money so they can do what ever they want" attitude across campuses today. Money buys lots of things, but not character. Thanks for commenting.

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  11. Ann Marie van den Hurk APR (via LinkedIn)July 16, 2012 at 7:00 AM

    While I wasn't at the table and don't know what happened behind closed doors, I will say regardless of how good a PR Pro is, they can't make leadership listen to them if they mindset isn't there.

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  12. Great point, Ann Marie. I've been blessed in my career with leaders who understood what needed to be done, even when the news was bad. Without that, who knows where we would have ended up. I appreciate your thoughts.

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  13. Denice Bruce (via LinkedIn)July 16, 2012 at 7:03 AM

    However--just to play devil's advocate . . . communication professionals must often salvage the remnants of a reputation in tatters. Just because the actions taken by Penn State WERE actually despicable doesn't let the crisis team off the hook. It's a lesson politicians have failed to learn from their professionals time and time again. When you screw up--be contrite. Ask for forgiveness. Renounce the deed. Adopt humility. This is how the crisis team failed. I argue it WAS a failure of crisis communication.

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  14. Thanks for the comment, Denice. Right now, the crisis comms team could be doing better. It seems the University is using the Freeh report as something to hide behind instead of as a place to start reforms. However, at the time (1998, 2001), there was nothing for the comms team to be contrite about. They couldn't renounce a deed that hadn't been announced. They couldn't ask for forgiveness without people knowing what they were being asked to forgive. At the time great crisis comms could have made a difference (1998, 2001) the communicators weren't part of the discussion.

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  15. Bob Aronson (via LinkedIn)July 16, 2012 at 7:11 AM

    Bill, I think the University is following advice from their lawyers and concentrating on all the law suits that have been and will be filed and that's ok, but in the meantime they are forgetting about the court of public opinion. By so doing the are ignoring the jury pool and all the current and future parents, students and benefactors. I've seen this happen time and time again. The lawyers swoop in and advise that the client not say or do anything that could have a negative influence on the case. The result is the client says and does nothing and makes things even worse. I know and I'm sure you do, too, that lawyers and PR people can work together if we are allowed to do so. The standard comment from Penn State has been that they want to wait to get all the facts and they use the language that shows some compassion. Unfortunately their lack of action nullifies their words. While they sit on their hands their image becomes more and more tarnished. If ever an organization needed to show transparency and compassion Penn state does and right now and they'd better do it quickly although I fear it may be too late.

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  16. You're right, Bob. If they have information that will change people's perceptions about what went on there, now would be the perfect time to talk about it. After all, we're all listening and watching now. But the time trial comes along, we will simply think that whatever they say is a trial strategy. We won't think it's true, just what they think they need to say to win.

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  17. Gerald Baron (via LinkedIn)July 16, 2012 at 1:48 PM

    Bill, Judy and all--completely agree (as you know) with "right actions + effective communication = trust." And I agree that an event like this is not a PR disaster in that the PR department failed the organization. I kept hearing that about the BP spill and it was a little tiresome. Sure, the communicators (and CEO) made mistakes, but you spill that kind of oil for months on end in full view of the world and that's not a PR disaster, that's a disaster!
    However, it is a crisis communication disaster to this degree. Where was the PR or crisis communication leaders when discussion came up (or didn't come up) about what to do with this? Reminds me of what Richard Edelman talked about in a speech he gave a while back about in this era of engagement, of reputations vulnerable to all things Internet, of an outrage-driven media, communication leaders need to take a stronger role in executive decision making. It may even be that communications may be the new path to the CEO office rather than finance, law or engineering. Wouldn't that be something. I know you are going to agree but Penn State provides two great lessons for crisis communicators (and executives) as I mention on www.crisisblogger.com today.

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  18. Gerald, I do agree with you that communicators need to be in at the revelation stage of the crisis so that they can offer their best advice. From what I can tell, they never got the chance at Penn State in the days when this was coming to light. As for path to the CEO office? That would be something. Thanks for reading and weighing in. Always appreciate your insight.

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  19. Denice Bruce (via LinkedIn)July 16, 2012 at 1:58 PM

    Gerald,
    My point exactly. At some point, the communication pros should have intervened more stringently--or resigned and gone to the authorities. Where were they when the (now exposed) documents and communiques were being bandied about? I call that failure. "Just following orders" as history teaches us, is no excuse.

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  20. Denise, I agree with you that "just following orders" is not an excuse. I worked at a company that responded to a client's request for a new product. For whatever reason, they asked us to issue a press release and say it was our idea to offer them the product. My response was that we would not issue a news release that contained a lie. They pushed back but we didn't budge. They ended up issuing the release. I had a boss that backed me up and it never approached the point of resignation. Doing the right thing at the earliest possible moment is the easiest it will ever be to do the right thing. That time for Penn State was 1998.

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  21. Veronica Elizabeth R (via LinkedIn)July 16, 2012 at 2:22 PM

    I'm almost afraid to comment on this. This story makes me sick to my core. If I had been on the team I would have advised Penn to make the statement, only after, they reported it to the proper authorities. I know I say this in hindsight now. But I believe you always have to get in front of the story. The truth always comes to light. Now Penn is going to be hit with a landslide of lawsuits and bad press. Crimes against children are crimes against humanity.

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  22. Veronica, I understand how you felt afraid to comment on this. It took me a while to delve into it because it was a truly horrific series of events. Thanks for taking the opportunity to join this discussion. When I read the Freeh Report, I didn't so much think of Peterno and others at Penn State as "callously indifferent" as I thought of them as accomplices.

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  23. Joe M. Grillo (via LinkedIn)July 17, 2012 at 9:01 AM

    ...I think Bill and Ann Marie have it mostly right...what Penn State had was an operational failure, like most orgnaizations have when there is a crisis...when you have such an operational failure, there is no PR magic...it can take weeks, months and years to earn back your reputation...PSU did communicate in the crisis...what they said could just never rise above the noise of the operational failures...

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  24. Joe, thanks for posting. PSU did communicate, but you're right, the operational failure was simply too overwhelming. It will take years before PSU moves on from this crisis. It's likely going to shape the next generation of students that attend over the next decade.

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  25. Bill, agree with your assessment completely. I doubt communicators were consulted until it was time to prepare statements that would somehow "spin" PSU into the clear. Which, we know, isn't possible. No spin move makes what PSU leaders did acceptable.

    On one point I disagree ... I don't think it was water they were drinking in Happy Valley.

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