Penn State Scandal: A Lesson in Crisis Management

Roy Burton@thebslineContributor INovember 13, 2011

STATE COLLEGE, PA - NOVEMBER 12:  Penn State fans walk away from Beaver Stadium after the NCAA football game between Penn State and Nebraska in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal on November 12, 2011 in State College, Pennsylvania.  Penn State lost their final home game 17-14. Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno was fired amid allegations that former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was involved with child sex abuse.   (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Mario Tama/Getty Images

For over a decade, former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky is alleged to have sexually assaulted at least eight minors, with some of the reported incidents occurring on the main campus of the university.

Over that same time period, several members of the Penn State administration failed to report the details of these incidents to the proper authorities, thus allowing the long and disturbing pattern of behavior to continue.

Even after news of the scandal broke, the university continued to drop the ball when it came to dealing with the case in the court of public opinion. And while Penn State's handling of the fallout is far less important than the fact that they allowed it to occur in the first place, it is noteworthy nonetheless.

If Penn State is teaching the same public relations strategy that they've employed over the past 10 days, then every student who is currently studying PR at the university should immediately change their major.

In late March, the Harrisburg Patriot-News reported that a grand jury was investigating sexual assault allegations against Sandusky for an incident that occurred in 2002.

Several Penn State employees—including Joe Paterno, athletic director Tim Curley and former university Vice President Gary Schultz—testified in front of the grand jury back in January.

At the very least, as soon as news of the grand jury investigation was made public, the university should have conducted a full investigation of the 2002 incident, as well as all previous allegations against Sandusky.

STATE COLLEGE, PA - NOVEMBER 12: A 'God Bless Joe Paterno' sign is seen outside Beaver Stadium before the start of the NCAA football game between Penn State and Nebraska in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal on November 12, 2011 in State College, Penn
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Instead, months went by with no official comment from Penn State until Sandusky was officially charged on November 5 with more than 40 counts of sexual abuse against minors. As part of the investigation, it was announced that Curley and Schultz would also be charged by the grand jury with perjury and failure to report suspected child abuse.

A grand jury isn't assembled on a whim—the chance that an indictment will be produced as a result of an investigation is close to 100 percent. So it was strange, to say the least, when Penn State said that both Curley and Schultz would have their legal fees paid for by the university.

Just as the scandal began to simmer last Tuesday, university President Graham Spanier canceled the school's weekly football press conference. It should be noted that he didn't explain the decision, nor did he speak to Paterno prior to pulling the plug. It wouldn't be the last time that either of the two parties acted without informing the other.

Last Wednesday, Paterno issued a personal statement saying that he would retire at the end of the season. Paterno isn't a target of the investigation, but by his own admission, he wished that he had done more to prevent the events from occurring on his watch.

From an individual standpoint, it was a shrewd PR move by Paterno to get in front of the story, but there was no way he should have been allowed to say anything of consequence to the media prior to consulting the school's legal counsel.

Approximately 12 hours after Paterno stated his intention to retire, Penn State's Board of Trustees announced that Paterno and university President Graham Spanier would both be relieved of their duties, effective immediately. The decision to fire the school's long-time head coach sparked a riot on campus that led to light posts being toppled and a television news van to be turned onto its side.

The news conference during which the decision was announced was just as frenetic as the campus would be later that evening. It didn't take long before random students (non-media members) began peppering the Board of Trustees with pointed questions that completely destroyed any positive spin the school's administration attempted to put on the events from the previous week.

In the aftermath of the riot, it was clear to anyone paying attention that assistant coach Mike McQueary (who witnessed the alleged incident in 2002) should not have been allowed anywhere near Beaver Stadium this past Saturday. Yet on Thursday, interim head coach Bob Bradley was adamant that McQueary would be on the sidelines against Nebraska. The school reversed its course mere hours later when word came out that McQueary would miss the game due to multiple threats against him.

The lack of institutional control is readily apparent at Penn State, as is the school's inability to employ the basic fundamentals of public relations. One of the keys to effective PR is to get the story straight. Being a state-related institution, Penn State is obligated to explain their actions and/or decisions to the public.

However, they also owe it to themselves to get the story right. Or, at the very least, they owe it to everyone to convey a consistent message. After all of the mistakes that they've made, it's the least they could do.

And the missteps continue: Sandusky's autobiography ("Touched") is still available in the university's bookstore, and Sandusky and Curley continue to receive state-funded pensions.

Penn State is no longer thought of as the ideal college set in an idyllic, little hamlet known as State College, PA, nor should it be. 

So perhaps it's fitting that Penn State has repeatedly failed in taking the proper steps to protect its image in a time of crisis. As the details of the 23-page grand jury report have shown us, they've been failing us all along.

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