Comms team, trustees must work closely in Penn State crisis response

STATE COLLEGE, PA: Penn State University's crisis situation may only worsen if its communications team and board of trustees don't work closely together to respond to the sexual abuse scandal rocking the college.

STATE COLLEGE, PA: Penn State University's crisis situation may only worsen if its communications team and board of trustees don't work closely together to respond to the sexual abuse scandal rocking the college.

The university and several high-profile employees, including head football coach Joe Paterno, came under fire this week after a grand jury indicted former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky for allegedly sexually molesting multiple young boys over a period of years.

Paterno and university president Graham Spanier were ousted by the school's board of trustees on Wednesday. The grand jury report alleges that Paterno was informed years ago by an assistant coach that he had witnessed the sexual abuse of a minor by Sandusky.

David Chamberlin, SVP and director of the issues and crisis unit at MSLGroup, said the university's communications team must understand the entire business of the school, including administration, operations, and finance to be able to adequately advise the board.

“Whenever you get in this type of situation, the communications side can only counsel, and at the end of the day, the buck stops with the president or the board,” he said. “They're going to find at times that when they give counsel, that the board of trustees isn't going to follow for whatever reason, and that's their prerogative.”

Gene Grabowski, SVP of Levick Strategic Communications, said Paterno's name is what makes the scandal a national story. Moving forward, Penn State should tout the coach's replacement or a search process, versus yesterday's announcement of an interim president, he said.

“I think that's far more important right now than having a new university president, quite honestly, because nobody knew who the president of Penn State was across the country, but everyone knew who Joe Paterno was,” he said. “The first thing they need to do is get a coach with an impeccable record for running a clean program, then they can worry about the president, although that is important as well, but not as important as the coach.”

Yet because many details about the situation are unknown, some industry experts said they can only speculate on how well the university's communications team handled the crisis.

“As it stands right now, this is going to significantly damage the image and everything [Paterno] has accomplished,” said Chamberlin. “He basically is Penn State, but wins and losses in football pale in comparison to what's happened to the individuals that were allegedly assaulted.”

And while industry experts agree that Paterno should have been sacked, the way in which Penn State distributed the news received mixed reactions.

“The university needed to be seen doing something – really, anything – decisively, even it was unpopular,” said Matt Barkett, MD and head of Dix & Eaton's crisis communications practice. “Some may suggest he should have been fired earlier in the week, but we're dealing with an icon here, and it was probably better to see if he would do it on his own first, given the many legal issues that will certainly follow in the coming weeks and months. When he made his choice, then the university could act in response if they felt his solution was insufficient, which obviously they did.”

Barker added that it appears the school lacked forward thinking and did not have a plan to deal with such a crisis.

“Clearly, at least the possibility of a major firestorm was there, and they should have been ready with clear messaging and action steps to be taken in any eventuality,” he said. “They seem to have been caught flat-footed – or at least indecisive, with the way they scheduled and then hastily canceled press conferences. There's really no excuse for not being ready for this event that they all knew was coming at some point. That's certainly another lesson for other university presidents today.”

However, Chamberlin said he believes the university did what it could with the information it had at the time.

“I think they made the only decision they could, which was to let the various individuals go,” he said. “I think this is the first step. I don't know if they let people know as quickly as they could have, but they did let people know in a decent window of time. I think a lot of people will quibble that it could have been done on Tuesday, or they could have done this as soon as the charges came out, and all kinds of other things, given the circumstances.”

Cynthia Hall, associate VP for university relations at Penn State, told PRWeek that her team is challenged by the fact that it only has 10 members.

“Some are staff assistants and that type of thing, so we have a very tiny unit in public information,” she said. “We have a marketing department, and we've certainly harnessed as many of those folks as we can to work on this.”

The university relations team has “heavily relied” on its website, news feed, and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to communicate with students, the public, and media, added Hall.

“It's obviously fast moving and quite a large situation for us,” she said. “It's just constantly unfolding, and I think you have an expectation by now that things will start to slow up, but of course that's not the case. This is something that took the grand jury four years of investigative work to get to this point for them to file charges, and of course there is a lot of pressure from the press right now for us to answer questions, and we just don't have the answers. That's been one of the most difficult things; that we can't turn those answers fast enough to satisfy folks given the complexity of the situation.”

Penn State also aired a 30-second halftime spot on Saturday featuring interim president Rodney Erickson during the school's game against Nebraska. The university also distributed the video on YouTube, through the school's website, and social media. 

Hall declined to comment on agency relationships.

Meanwhile, Bill Stuart, an associate professor of communications studies at Longwood University in Virginia, said despite the student body's negative portrayal in the media following Wednesday night's riots, it too has a significant role to play in the conversation.

“I really think the students have a huge opportunity and perhaps obligation to take a leadership role in defining the perceptions people have of Penn State in reaction to this crisis, and that will probably start with the student leadership or student government association," he said.

Stuart said the students should approach it like an issues campaign, focusing on support efforts to end the abuse of children versus whether or not they love Paterno.

Penn State's students are reportedly planning a candlelight vigil on Friday night, and a group of alumni are collecting money for RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) via Twitter.

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