Penn State still has a lot to learn about navigating a crisis

There is a Golden Rule in medicine, first do no harm.

There is a Golden Rule in medicine, first do no harm. That rule can be applied to crisis communications, particularly by senior executives attempting post-crisis damage control. Just ask BP CEO Tony "I want my life back" Hayward, who for the foreseeable future, or at least until the next CEO verbal slip and fall, will be viewed as the poster child for what not to do when facing a crisis.

And while recent comments during a town-hall road trip by Penn State's new president Rodney Erickson may not have risen to Hayward heights, he came close at the Valley Forge, PA, meeting by saying, "I could have walked away from the job, but I didn't. I walked into a job few others would, but I did it." He should have saved that comment for his retirement dinner, rather than the first events following the biggest scandal in school history.

To be the effective leader Penn State desperately needs, the top three bullet points on the index card Erickson was holding at these speeches should have been: Give credibility to the transparency message Penn State is promoting; clearly answer questions regarding how the university is addressing the situation; and instill public confidence that there is an effective take-charge leader in place.

In fairness to Erickson, was it the best strategy to have the new university president be the only school representative on stage at the three town-hall-style meetings, especially when most concerns vocalized by the audience pertained to actions taken by the board?

Erickson actually reports to the board and it was its decision to fire beloved football coach Joe Paterno on the same day it dismissed Erickson's predecessor Graham Spanier. He also repeatedly brought up the fact that he doesn't have any control over the board's actions and left some audience members with the impression they were not speaking "to the man in charge," which undermined his ability to position himself as the university's confident new leader.

The rule of thumb in a crisis is usually to have one spokesperson, but in this case giving the audience access to an executive involved in the decision-making would have also lent itself to the transparency message the university is now promoting.

Erickson's road trip was a key first step for Penn State post-scandal. Navigating what will surely be a long news cycle will require flawless PR strategies that deliver on the promise of transparency and help school leadership regain public trust. 

Bernadette Casey is the senior editor of PRWeek. She can be contacted at bernadette.casey@prweek.com.

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