“We are Penn State” video courtesy of Penn State graduate, Alex Cohen.
In light of recent events, I’ve tried to avoid writing this blog post, partly because it saddened me to read Penn State’s name in headline after headline, but mainly because I needed to sift through all the information before forming an opinion on the university’s PR efforts. After being asked to do an interview for the local paper about my thoughts on our PR response I spent some time reviewing the stages of a crisis and reflected on where Penn State should go from here. Below are my thoughts on how Penn State has moved through the stages of this crisis and what we should be doing as faculty, students and alumni in the future.
Stage 1 | Prodromal Stage
Every crisis has its warning signs, and the Jerry Sandusky scandal (NOTE: not the Penn State or Joe Paterno or the-anything-but-Jerry Sandusky scandal) had its share of warning signs. Anyone who read the 23-page grand jury report knows that there were numerous instances of inappropriate behavior, strange comments made by Sandusky himself and a suspicious early retirement. The fact alone that young boys were spending the night at his home or on the road with Sandusky should have been a red flag.
Stage 2 | Detection Stage
The detection stage of a crisis comes when those prodromes have been recognized and it becomes apparent that a crisis could be looming. This was a three year investigation. University officials were testifying in this indictment. At this point it would be safe to say that a PR crisis was brewing and Penn State needed to start preparing for the storm that was about to hit.
Stage 3 | Preparation Stage
One of the most important areas of public relations (and one of my favorite) is crisis communications. A company, public figure, or an institution should never be without a crisis plan. The same thing goes for a university like Penn State. When university officials learned of the investigation they should have immediately begun to create their crisis plan and they should never have been caught without one. If Penn State had prepared for the pending crisis they would have appropriately identified their key publics – the first being the victims and the second being those associated with the university, developed their messages and created a timeline of information to provide to the media. Had Penn State built their crisis communication plan around those two groups, their actions immediately following the news of the grand jury report could have better reflected the sentiments of students, faculty and alumni around the world and presented outsiders with a unified response from those who make up Penn State.
Stage 4 | Containment Stage
Once the news broke, Penn State made several mistakes and rather than containing the damage, the university’s actions seemed to make it spread. Spanier’s outlandish “unconditional support” for Schultz and Curley should never have superseded an immediate apology to the alleged victims. That Saturday only one message needed to be heard and it was that Penn State was grieving with those victims. Following that, university officials – whether it be the Public Information Office or the Board of Trustees – needed to show the media that we would be as transparent as possible. Regular press conferences should have been scheduled even if they were simply for a Penn State representative to show up and announce “there is no new information at this time.” Instead, officials were keeping quiet, alumni were outraged, students were on the defensive and the media was forced to find their own information and create their own stories. Cue media attention on Joe Paterno or the rioting “Nitt-wit” students who were in a “Penn State of denial.” Thanks New York Post, for that hard hitting journalism.
Stage 5 | Recovery Stage
It’s unfortunate that it took until Stage 5 for me to be proud of our PR efforts, but as I watched our university be forced into a culture change overnight, I’ve seen some admirable and inspirational people and events emerge. The student-organized Penn State candlelight vigil had nearly 10,000 people stand together to grieve for the victims and acknowledge the horrors of child abuse. Our students, faculty and alumni have banded together to raise nearly $500 thousand for the RAINN Foundation to stop abuse through the #ProudPSUforRAINN campaign and last night Penn State held its first Town Hall meeting with students and top ranking university officials to discuss recent events and what the future holds for Happy Valley.
Stage 6 | Learning Stage
The events that unfolded here in November have provided a learning experience nationwide. Large universities are reexamining where emphasis is placed and people who were unaware of the warning signs and statistics surrounding child abuse are now informed and hopefully ready to act when they see something is wrong. As Penn Staters, we’ve had a harsh lesson in what it means to each one of us individually to have the “success with honor” that our university has prided itself on. We’ve had to defend dear Old State, grieve with the victims and their families, and begin to rebuild the trust that we’ve had for all things Penn State. The past few weeks here haven’t been easy but as our new President Rodney Erickson told my class recently, “This is our university and nobody is going to take that away from us.”
Click here to read President Erickson’s Promise to the Penn State Community.