Penn State scandal: What not to do in a crisis

Penn State Nittany Lion

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Penn State Nittany LionThe information coming out of Penn State becomes more disturbing by the hour. At this point, Jerry Sandusky is facing 40 criminal counts for sexually abusing children. Football coach Joe Paterno has been fired. Graham Spanier, one of the nation’s longest-serving and highest-paid university presidents, voluntarily resigned, and will no longer serve on the board US Steel. Two high-ranking university officials, Gary Schultz and Tim Curley, are currently facing perjury charges and investigations to determine what they knew when, and if this was one big cover-up that spanned decades. From a purely PR standpoint, Penn State dropped the ball when it came to handling crisis communications. Most universities are run as fiefdoms with the president at the top. They have their own rules, politics and police departments. Below are a few things that could have been handled differently by university officials, and in particular, by now ex-President Graham Spanier: 1)   No crisis communications plan. University officials were clearly caught off guard when this story blew up in the media, despite that they knew for years that Sandusky was a ticking time bomb. Graham Spanier and others were aware of an eyewitness account of Sandusky’s criminal behavior in 2002. They did not call the police, and instead just banned Sandusky from bringing kids to the college campus. Why didn’t Spanier have even the slightest plan of action when the story hit? Too often, leaders are arrogant and think that a scandal like this one will not affect them personally. They strive to protect their institutions. Penn State officials seemed surprised and inept when the story became national news within minutes. 2)   Don’t let multiple people serve as spokespeople. In a crisis situation there must be only one spokesperson, one voice and consistent messages coming from the organization. One entity needs to be reviewing and approving statements. At Penn State, it seemed there were rogue statements coming out of everywhere. In the early days of the arrests, Graham Spanier issued a particularly troubling press release (see point #3), and Paterno issued statements saying he would retire at the end of the season, and that they all may have been “fooled” by Sandusky. But then, in a move that did not surprise outsiders looking in, the Board of Trustees fired him by phone shortly thereafter. It was clear that no one was sending a decisive message to the media that represented the Penn State position on anything. 3)   Do not issue heartless and self-serving press releases. This goes back to the hubris and arrogance of powerful leaders. After his buddies and colleagues Curley and Schultz were arrested on perjury charges, Graham Spanier issued a press release that included the following statements: “With regard to the other presentments, I wish to say that Tim Curley and Gary Schultz have my unconditional support. I have known and worked daily with Tim and Gary for more than 16 years. I have complete confidence in how they have handled the allegations about a former University employee. “Tim Curley and Gary Schultz operate at the highest levels of honesty, integrity and compassion. I am confident the record will show that these charges are groundless and that they conducted themselves professionally and appropriately.” PR people the world over cringed at the phrase “unconditional support.”  How does he know that they are innocent? Just because they have been friends for 16 years? It’s best not to announce any sort of support to people who have been arrested, haven’t been tried yet, and may end up going to jail. Graham Spanier should have issued a press release stating that he takes these allegations seriously, that the university will immediately launch its own internal investigation, and all with a strong message expressing support for the victims. His first concern was for his friends and the reputation of the university, and it is reflected in this very cold, corporate announcement. What do you think?

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