Every day, public relations professionals help people understand the reasons why an organization says and does the things it says and does.
But one thing public relations professionals cannot help people understand, and should never have to, are an organization’s moral and legal failings.
Example: The ongoing crisis at Penn State, which entails its failure to report allegations of sexual abuse of minors by former Nittany Lions assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, to the proper legal authorities. (Update, Nov. 10, 2011: Penn State fired Mr. Paterno and University President Graham Spanier Wednesday night.)
Already, the media and some in the PR industry have anointed this unspeakable tragedy an example of a “public relations catastrophe” (so says The New York Times) and a moment in which a well-known brand failed to properly understand the modern reputational challenges of the digital age.
It is none of that. It’s time we stop describing gross managerial missteps, operational failures, lying, cheating, fraud and, in this case, systematic legal and moral failings as a public relations _________ (insert “disaster,” “nightmare” or “debacle”). Frankly, a public relations disaster is trying to set the Guinness Record for the world’s largest Popsicle on a hot summer day.
Anyone who thinks public relations can be counted on to “sweep up after the parade” and serve in the role of savior for something as tragic and awful as the recent events at Penn State is fooling themselves. In the immortal words of Arthur W. Page, public relations is 90 percent what you do, and only 10 percent what you say.
There’s very little a public relations professional could say that would fix this mess.
At PRSA, we talk a lot about the business value of public relations; its ability to change attitudes and behaviors toward some of the world’s most pressing social issues. We have an advocacy program, “The Business Case for Public Relations™,” built around this concept.
But one thing our profession should never do is take advantage of tragic situations to boost public relations’ value. Now is not the time to hold up public relations as the soap that can wash away Penn State’s sins.
Because public relations can’t fix failures of moral and legal obligations, let alone those that appear driven by big-time college athletics and efforts to protect the reputation of the winningest coach in Division I college football. That takes a cultural shift within an organization that goes far beyond public relations’ scope.
Hey, we’ll be the first to point out when situations can employ public relations to address reputational issues and restore trust. Our profession has long asserted that public relations professionals are in a unique position to serve as organizational “conscience,” and deserve a seat at the CEO’s table on that basis alone. But it seems to us to be almost like ambulance chasing for public relations professionals to make themselves look smart at someone else’s expense by bloviating about out “what Penn State should have done.”
No amount of public relations will fix Penn State’s failings. Had the allegations of sexual impropriety been reported to University Relations Vice President, Bill Mahon, public relations might have prevented this from ever becoming a crisis, and even may have burnished Penn State’s reputation for “doing the right thing” in the process. We’re willing to bet that, right now, Mr. Mahon is wishing someone would have reported the allegations to him.
We’ll step off our soapbox now. But we think it’s important that, as a profession, we don’t overreach and try to uphold our work as the savior for every societal tragedy and crisis. Doing so makes us look opportunistic and foolish considering the gravity of the situation.
Let’s give the human element of this tragic situation the respect it deserves. After all, you never hear a doctor saying, “I never would have resected his bowel like that … ”
Update 1 (12:15 p.m. EST, Nov. 10, 2011): Added a paragraph addressing how Penn State might have appropriately used its in-house PR counsel to address the issue before it came to light.
Update 2 (2:15 p.m. EST, Nov. 10, 2011): If any PR pros at universities have advice or insight on effect crisis comms at the university level, please send to firstname.lastname@example.org for inclusion in a future post.