Penn State’s PR train wreck

As a veteran of the public relations field since the 1980s (with a niche interest in crisis communications and reputation management in corporate, government and non-profit sectors), I’ve always been intrigued by really good examples of really bad PR practice in action.

The Penn State scandal has been one in which the optics, as we say in PR, were truly dreadful. So, like slowing down for a train wreck, let’s revisit this case – but from a unique perspective.  This visitation is not about serial sexual predator Jerry Sandusky. There’s little that hasn’t already been said about him since the disgraced former Penn State assistant football coach was convicted on 45 counts of child abuse.

And it’s also not about then-Graduate Assistant Mike McQueary, who testified at trial that about 10 years ago, he walked in on Sandusky in the act of raping a 10-year old child in a staff shower room. But (instead of CALLING THE POLICE – or at the very least grabbing the naked Sandusky and smashing his head against the shower room wall a few times as any normal red-blooded American man may have been moved to do in order to protect that little boy), Mike McQueary chose only to bang his locker door loudly to warn Sandusky that “someone was watching”. And the next morning – instead of CALLING THE POLICE – when he finally mentioned this troubling incident to his boss, McQueary chose“not to describe the act in explicit detail out of a sense of respect for the coach”. Mike McQueary will now have to live for the rest of his life with an act of cowardice which put that child and countless other innocent victims of Sandusky in harm’s way for the next 10 years.

Let us consider how a respected institution and iconic college sports mecca like Penn State, led by its otherwise intelligent senior staff, chose really bad responses to these tragic events right from Day One. In fact, the only real comparison when it comes to utter incompetence in modern professional communications malpractice is the Vatican’s deliberate cover-up and systemic protection of its predator priests.

Here’s how Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette explained why Penn State may have been so hamstrung in its handling of the worst possible PR crisis the venerable school has ever faced.  When sportswriters and other journalists started asking questions about the Sandusky case last fall, he wrote:

“The university long has recoiled nearly instinctively at the approach of the media, and that was under optimally sunny circumstances, when the most unflattering ‘news’ reportable was the perfectly benign and only occasional three-game losing streak.

“So do not be surprised that Penn State has no more idea of how to handle a public relations disaster than it does an eyewitness account of a sexual assault on a child in the shower at its football facility.”

In other words, a long period of institutional goodwill with little experience in launching an external response to serious crisis, along with a parochial desire to protect the reputation of that institution at all costs, can lead otherwise brainy folks to close ranks, guided by four key flawed beliefs:

  1. a “No Comment” response to outside questions will not make us look guilty
  2. lying low and keeping this little mess away from prying eyes is smart
  3. this will all blow over soon if we just pretend it’s business as usual
  4. pay no attention to that man behind the curtain

By now, we have already picked up on the similarities between beliefs like these and the global systemic cover-up in the Vatican’s attempts to protect its predator priests rather than their innocent victims – yet another arrogant example of an inexplicable lack of awareness of just how morally repugnant such moves are. (By the way, this week the Vatican announced that a Fox News reporter named Greg Burke is the first ever externally-hired media advisor ever hired by the church – a decision that unwittingly ensured future fodder for political satirists worldwide. The Pope picks FOX NEWS as the likely source of the best media training?!)

In an eerie coincidence, Sandusky’s criminal conviction came on the very same day another landmark child sex abuse case was decided, also in Pennsylvania. A jury in Philadelphia found Monsignor William Lynn guilty of endangering the welfare of a child, making him the first senior U.S. Roman Catholic Church official to be convicted not for abusing children himself, but for covering up child sex abuse.

The human cost of the Penn State scandal is catastrophic, starting of course with Sandusky’s victims.

But consider also the perspective of Mark Serrano, a DC-based PR consultant and CEO of  ProActive Communications. He is, more importantly, himself a sex abuse survivor, and one of the first victims in North America to break his silence when his story was featured in a New York Times cover piece about his experiences at the hands of former predator priest James Hanley at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Paterson, New Jersey.

Serrano explains how Sandusky was protected all along by his co-conspirators at Penn State.

“Jerry Sandusky did not act alone. Penn State officials looked the other way. They failed to acknowledge the truth about what they knew of Sandusky’s criminal activities dating back to 1998. Sandusky was protected by university officials in order to maintain their prestigious football program and all of the riches and power that it provided them. 

Prosecutors allege that Sandusky used The Second Mile, the charity he founded, to locate more victims. After he abruptly retired from football in 1999, Sandusky took advantage of The Second Mile and became a career child molester – all because he was not held accountable while at Penn State.

“This had a devastating effect on the lives of many more victims of crimes which would have been prevented if only university officials (including President Graham Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley, and Senior Vice President Gary Schultz) had properly reported Sandusky to state authorities and banned him from the PSU campus for life.

“Penn State also knew the Grand Jury decision was coming, but they did not prepare.  They did not rally behind the known victims, and certainly did not encourage other victims to come forward.  The university failed those boys.

“A common scenario in public relations crises like this is when the lawyers line up along one side of the table, and the PR executives line up along the other. Trouble is, the lawyers, concerned about legal liability, often win the debate about how to proceed. 

“And that is why lawsuits are coming.”

Unfortunately for Penn State, a grand jury report made public last November found that Curley and Schultz, who oversaw the campus police, had lied about their response to Mike McQueary’s 2002 testimony.

NBC News reported last week that newly obtained evidence includes emails showing Curley, Schultz and Spanier discussing how to handle Sandusky’s case. Spanier and Schultz, according to NBC, agreed that it would be “humane” to not report Sandusky to any authorities.

One day after Sandusky was finally arrested in November and charged with sexual abuse of boys over a 15-year period, Penn State University’s Board of Trustees hired Omnicom Group’s PR agency Ketchum for crisis communications counsel, the firm told Advertising Age at the time.  But Penn State has apparently already retained at least 12 other firms at a cost estimated at $7.6 million to provide public relations and legal assistance during the growing crisis, including Edelman, an international public relations firm, and La Torre Communications, a local boutique agency based in Harrisburg.

But despite this heavyweight PR help, no visible spokesperson was named to address the firestorm of questions and comments.  Instead, silence and “No comment” seemed their only issues management decisions. Penn State’s social media staff were ordered to remove Sandusky’s photo from their sports Facebook page. In fact, on November 5, 2011, they were ordered to stop posting on Facebook completely.

And shortly after Sandusky’s arrest, as the coverage reached a cyclonic pitch in the media, a number of the university’s sponsors withdrew their financial support.

As the full scope of Penn State’s massive failure to act began to unfold, heads rolled.

The legendary school football coach Joe Paterno was fired after 409 victories, two national titles and almost 50 years behind the bench. He died of cancer in January 2012. Penn State president Graham Spanier, (whose failure to act has been described by Serrano as an “egregious act of negligence and a reflection of a power culture gone mad”) lost his job. Tim Curley, widely considered one of the nation’s top athletic directors, lost his job, too – and still faces a criminal trial along with Senior Vice President Gary Schultz on obstruction and failure to report charges from Sandusky’s victims. Both men maintain their innocence.

As sportswriter Donald Wood described last November’s events in Bleacher Report:

“You would think that a school with such an illustrious communications program would have a better grasp of a date they knew was coming since the investigation into Jerry Sandusky’s alleged sexual misconduct started.

“Penn State couldn’t have handled the situation any worse than it did, and even its own staff has decided to use this public relations disaster to teach its students how not to handle scandals like this.”

The staff that Wood was referring to include Steve Manuel, since 1996 a senior lecturer of public relations in Penn State’s College of Communications. He did, in fact, deliver a guest presentation to PR students and the media called “Joe Paterno, Communications and the Media”. His lecture addressed how the school mishandled this issue when the scandal first broke:

“The golden rule of public relations is you have to get something out in the first 60 minutes. And mentioning the victims always comes first.

“Bad news doesn’t get better with time. When you cede the message to critics or adversaries, you lose the battle. This was a crisis in the making of at least three years. Penn State knew this shoe was going to drop, yet it was not prepared.

“All the magnificent things Penn State has done over generations is on one side of the ledger. Jerry Sandusky is on the other. One has nothing to do with the other, and the university needs a massive campaign to emphasize this. But this is going to take a long time to repair.”

Meanwhile, Penn State waited until after Sandusky’s guilty verdicts to finally issue a statement inviting victims to participate in discussions toward a resolution of their claims against the university”. Right up until then, Penn had previously declined to comment. Had their high-priced PR consultants advised those “No comment” responses?

With $4.6 billion in operating revenue reported for the last fiscal year and an endowment topping $1.8 billion, Penn State must now ready itself for civil litigation.

At least one unidentified male has already filed a lawsuit against the university for failing to protect him from Sandusky. To hold the school liable, a victim would have to show that Penn State – through its employees – owed the boys a duty of care and that they failed to uphold that duty.

As the school’s scandal evolves, one Penn State graduate (1984) named Jennifer Miller Carney, who runs her own PR/marketing firm in Philadelphia, wrote:

“The only way Penn State will ever ‘recover’ is to get rid of the football program and shine the light on select colleges.

“Oh, and change their name, colors, and logo. I’m not joking. The Penn State we all thought we knew is gone — actually, it really didn’t exist! I’ve put away my Penn State T-shirts and sweats, and have crossed them off the list of potential colleges for my kids.”

Shortly after Jerry Sandusky’s arrest, the Board of Trustees hired former FBI Director Louis Freeh to investigate the university’s handing of the Sandusky case. So far, Freeh has conducted over 400 interviews.  He revealed that his inquiry will go as far back as 1975, a far longer period than the Grand Jury report issued earlier.*

But even the decision to hire Freeh as an independent investigator seems to be an afterthought born of surprisingly poor public relations planning.

This decision came about only as a secondary reaction following negative concerns about the Penn State Board of Trustees’s original announcement of a planned internal investigation to be led by two university trustees: Kenneth Frazier, the CEO of pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., and Ronald Tomalis, Pennsylvania state secretary of education.

The school’s Board of Trustees had already been widely criticized for conducting too much business in secrecy, and for not even recognizing a crisis until it exploded in the news media with the November arrest.

So after Penn State faculty members called loudly for an independent investigation of how the university handled the Sandusky abuse allegations, the faculty senate endorsed a resolution asking for an independent investigation to replace the Board’s planned internal one.

Does the systemic denial ever stop?


* NEWS UPDATE: New York Times, July 13, 2012:  Abuse Inquiry Faults Paterno and Others At Penn State

NEWS UPDATE: New York Times, July 22, 2012:  Penn State Removes Joe Paterno Statue

NEWS UPDATE:  New York Times, October 10, 2012 –  Unrepentant Sandusky Sentenced to 30-60 Years in Penn State Sex Abuse Case


For an overview of the Sandusky child abuse case, see this NPR timeline.


lQ:  What are Penn State’s chances of redeeming their reputation?


8 thoughts on “Penn State’s PR train wreck

    • Agreed – and by omitting responsible actions, Sandusky had the protection of co-conspirators at PSU who sat by and did nothing. A tragedy for so many.

  1. As a current PR student at Penn State- I can definitely attest that our professors in the College of Communications have discussed the lack of PR that our university displayed.

    There is no better time to be a PR student at Penn State and we have ALL learned an incredible amount from this mess. Other communications students and I have continuously come up with “What we would have done” scenarios and what we would all do if we had that position to be a voice for our peers, faculty, staff and alumni who have watched this unfold with the rest of the world. Instead, we have to personally defend ourselves everyday.

    And also, my thoughts and prayers are with the victims that they may begin healing and moving forward.

    • Hello PennStateForever and thanks for your unique perspective. Although it may now seem that “there is no better time to be a PR student at Penn State” (and you’re certainly getting a powerful crash course in what NEVER to do!) I do wonder if the acid test may in fact be after graduation when you actually go job-hunting. Holding a PR diploma from an institution whose reputation has become synonymous with incompetent PR may turn out be a liability.

  2. I don’t think it’s going to affect getting a job negatively. If anything being a Penn State student during this period may get your resume noticed and your foot into the door. You’ll be interviewed first just out of curiosity if anything else, So WOW them. Plus It’s not the students reputation that were tarnished, they didn’t do anything wrong. Lets not underestimate the intelligence of hiring managers & HR departments. If anything the students will receive compassion for having to endure such stress & drama during their time there. The tarnished reputation of the faculty now that’s another story. Especially if you are involved in sports. Even if you didn’t know, it’s guilt by association. Now that’s a shame especially if you were clueless.

  3. With regards to the PR issue. They knew they were guilty. I’m sure many attorneys had advised them to be silent leaving you & other students defending an image & a lie. They couldn’t say anything and still can’t. A man doesn’t suddenly become a pedophile at 50. Penn State, like the catholic church will be years in litigation over this. The PR issue lies in is my child safe if I send him/her to Penn State.

  4. Q: What are Penn State’s chances of redeeming their reputation?

    A: Very low.

    The only way to do it is to completely disassociate itself from the actions of Paterno/Spanier/Schultz/Curley by essentially throwing them under the bus. Everything named after Paterno must be renamed, and the statue has to come down. This would convince the public that the current administration is serious about changing things.

    But it would be a financial disaster in terms of lost donations. Too many Paterno loyalists exist among the PSU major donors. They are very much caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to outside perspective vs. Paterno loyalists.

  5. Pingback: Stern Associates

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s