Public Relations Won’t Fix Penn State’s Crisis

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 … ”

Arthur Yann, APR, is PRSA’s vice president, public relations. Keith Trivitt is PRSA’s associate director, public relations.

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 for inclusion in a future post.

About the author

Keith Trivitt and Arthur Yann


  • This is a very poor analysis of PR’s role in a crisis. In almost every sentence there are misrepresentations of the role of a public relations counselor in times of unwanted and intense scrutiny. To state that public relations professionals cannot help people understand an organization’s moral and legal failings shows a remarkable degree of ignorance about what we do in times of trouble. We focus on fixing things, not explaining away past failures. The PR failings here have many elements — but the most important is the alleged widespread institutionalized cover-up, the organization’s refusal to act decisively, the muddled communications from the organization, the failure to clearly and emphatically express concern and remorse for those victimized. PR can and should help organizations come to terms with past failures so they can engage in open and accurate information sharing. PR can and should encourage organizations embrace the need for decisive and rapid action. PR can and should be an agent for change within an organization so past failures serve as learning opportunities rather than just sources of shame. And sometimes PR’s role is simply to shine the bright light of obviousness on what everyone else can see but those hunkered down inside those four walls cannot see. To suggest that those who assist Penn State or the Paterno family or others involved are ambulance chasers shows a remarkable ignorance about the positive and productive role PR can play in times of trouble.

    • Thanks for chiming in, Dan. While I can’t say I agree with your assessment that our analysis displays an ignorance for the basic capabilities of public relations’ role and value, I do agree with you that public relations can do all of what you cite above, and very often, in a productive and meaningful manner. 

      And that’s exactly the point of our post: at its very best, PR does exactly what you say it does. And it helps organizations in many meaningful ways. As it should. But at its worst, when the media blindly summarize very issue a company faces as a “PR nightmare” and PR pros quickly jump at the chance to throw in a slide or two in a new business deck about how company X failed to jump on social media crisis Y when all they needed to do was just tweet that they are sorry, our profession can start to look opportunistic. When we minimize an unspeakable tragedy, such as the one at Penn State, by calling it a “PR catastrophe” (as The New York Times did), which basically says that all Penn State needed was a bit more transparency and all would have been OK, we not only insult those who are affected by the situation, but we really insult the value of our profession. 

      Case in point, the website (, which coincidentally, was started by a well-known PR firm. 

      As you rightly note, PR can and should do so much more than “explaining away past failures.” We should help organizations find more proactive and transparent ways to communicate their value to their stakeholders, and in the case when things go wrong, help those in charge communicate clearly and transparency exactly what happened and what is being done to rectify the situation. Clearly, Penn State failed on all accounts in that regard. 

      But I still think it’s a mistake for the media or the PR industry to try to glom onto this tragic situation and anoint PR as the savior. We are not, at least not in this case. The failings of Penn State go far beyond anything PR can solve, or anything that even the best management gurus can fix. It will require a much deeper look into the moral fabric of the university, and of college athletics as a whole, to fix this situation. 

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. 

      Keith Trivitt
      Associate Director

      • I agree with Dan on this one. Had someone with some PR sense and a detached perspective been involved, Penn State would not be where it is now. So in that sense there is certainly a PR disaster though it pales in comparison to the moral failings and, of course, the criminal behavior.

        PR is about clear communication. It is about understanding a set of facts and their implications. Then PR guides a strategy and action. And when those don’t carry the day, PR is about moving past the crisis that is likely to result.

        Eric Rabe

        • I think you’ve laid out several good points, Eric. But I’m curious whether you think we should really frame this as PR can help Penn State move past this crisis in such a fluid manner? I’m not so sure.

          To me, it seems like if we say, “Well, if Penn State had used better PR or if it wisely uses PR throughout this crisis, all will work out” minimizes the severity of the situation. Certainly, Penn State now has to work on moving past this tragedy, while also clearly communicating what went wrong and what it is doing to ensure a similar incident will never happen again. And, of course, it must work on rebuilding the public’s trust and its reputation, all hallmarks of public relations.

          But I worry any time we start giving PR so much rope as to say that it can’t help an organization blast past a crisis. The tragedy happened, and in some ways, PR should be used to help explain the nuances and severity of the situation, as well as how serious Penn State takes the allegations. The time for “moving past the crisis” will come, but I think that’s still a ways off.

          Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Always appreciate the commentary and different perspectives.

          Keith Trivitt, PRSA

          • The essence of the original post, which I agree with, is that PR’s role cannot be to help Penn State get (choose the word): over, beyond, behind the crisis.  Properly used, professional PR counsel will advise Penn State on how to convey — clearly — the steps it is and will take to restore its organizational responsibility and individual accountability.

  • What we have at Penn State is a failure of leadership at the highest levels. And that has translated into not using its public relations team effectively, or allowing its PR team to do the job it’s trained to do. That’s not saying public relations would have changed the course of things. I do think it would have helped the administration navigate this much better.

  • I do think you can view this as a Public Relations crisis in two ways…

    a–If the leaders of Public Relations at Penn State had a seat at the management table and with the university president (and I have no idea if they did) they could have potentially advised the university president about the PR implications of everthing going on at the school, could a red flag have been raised that could have detected this situation earlier and acted earlier on it??
    b–If we view PR as developing and maintaining mutually beneficfial long-term relationships between Penn State and its publics, then the skills of PR professionals will surely be needed to rebuild trust and understanding and goodwill between the university and its key publics..

    Ric Jensen, PHD
    Visiting Pro., Ashland U. (Ohio)

    • Ric, you are spot-on with both of your points. I especially agree with you on the last one, that the best value of PR for any situation and any organization is in the development of mutually-beneficial relationships between an org and its stakeholders. Taken from that viewpoint, PR can and will be very beneficial for Penn State in the aftermath of this situation, as it looks to rebuild trust with the public, students, administrators, etc. and rebuild its credibility and reputation.

      I think in both points, you take a long-term view of PR’s value, which I would hope most would see. Unfortunately, all too often, the media and some PR pros view our work as a quick-fix solution to what are often long-term and very difficult, nuanced problems.

      Keith Trivitt, PRSA

  • “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.'”


    It’s too easy to armchair quarterback what someone SHOULD have done, especially when we have the luxury of reading everyone else’s bloviations and then cherry picking the best ideas. But, for those of us who have actually managed big crises, you don’t have the time or luxury of reading other people’s advice. You can only go on your gut, your training, and do what you have always done.

    • You are right, Erik. My college campus experienced a crisis – a tragic death on campus – just last week. I have 25 years of experience in public and media relations. I’ve read books on crisis communications and written crisis communications plans. Nothing really prepares you for a real crisis. I had just minutes to gather information before talking to reporters and going on camera. I didn’t pull out my plan and check what I needed to do. I was dealing not only with facts, but the emotions of those around me, as well as my own emotions. I was running on gut instinct at that point and I have been told that I pulled it off. I’m sure if all the details of my handling of crisis communications were laid bare, someone would find fault. I’m OK with that.You and I can learn from that. As long as our critical reasoning is used for the purpose of teaching ourselves and others, we should look at PSU and learn from it, both the good and the bad.

  • I see your points in this piece, but I disagree with the perspective.  While I agree that true P.R. professionals should be wary of an ambulance chaser mentality (I love that analogy), one reason we are in the business of public relations is to help clients or our employers publicly send a message.  We can’t be the moral compass in situations such as the Penn State issue, but are there to help groups like the Board of Trustees focus on the true issue—the victims.  P.R. won’t “fix” the crisis but it will provide guidance so that the Penn State, as an institution, internally makes the right decisions.

    I don’t see P.R. as P.R.  I see P.R. as an opportunity to teach leadership and ethics via communication.

  • It would be more accurate to say that it was a failure of crisis management. PR can’t prevent some crises from occurring, but appropriate messaging can help keep the situation from getting worse. Initial statements from administrators only served to throw oil on the flames. We need to focus on the handling of crises, not necessarily the prevention of them.

  • I agree that Penn State’s moral issues are something that cannot be fixed by PR. However, you can’t say that PR crisis management couldn’t have been handled better. It’s understood that the institution wanted to separate itself from those who were involved or morally “dirty”. But when you fire such a public figure as Joe Paterno over the phone in the middle of the night you are not considering your stakeholders, nor the consequences.

    Penn State could’ve avoided riots by having a little more control over their head coach and reigning him in from muddling a press conference to begin with. In addition to convincing him to step down from his position immediately as the best course of action.

    We have a responsibility as PR professionals to advocate in the best interest of our client. Penn State’s crisis management jumped the gun in order to sever themselves from the problem before they could address all the facts. They were mainly going off what they heard in the media.

    In this day in age, people are willing to forgive and forget over time if you want to do the right thing. Social media and technology moves so fast and we must understand that in order to rebuild.

    In closing, it will always take time to rebuild from crises like Penn st is going through. But PR pros can’t just throw their hands up when if looks like it’s too tough! There is always work to be done.

    • Russ, you are quite right that there is always work to be done for PR pros to effectively manage any situation, whether good, bad or all-out crisis. And I think you make a very valid point about how Penn State handled the announcement of Paterno’s firing. Certainly, making that announcement very late at night, on a university campus where emotions are already very high among all parties involved, likely was not its best course of action. That’s Monday-morning quarterbacking a bit, but I think many would agree that it would have been best if the University had made some type of brief announcement last night that it would formally announce its decision in the morning (today) to allow cooler heads to prevail.

      As it stands now, a tragic situation is made all the worse by students rioting over the coach being fired. Not exactly a banner week for America’s higher education system.

  • Effective public relations is built on relationships and trust and Penn State, unfortunately, has ignored both in its handling of this very tragic and ugly situation.  They’ve managed to miss a few cardinal principles of crisis communication, too.  First, the news of the grand jury’s findings apparently took many Board members by surprise — as did the president’s subsequent statement pledging his full support of his two key staffers.  Thus, those who are ultimately responsible for the university were uninformed and unconsulted — and unable to respond on behalf of the university in the early stages of the story, That’s one bond of trust violated — to say nothing of the bonds with the alumni, the students, and the community,   The president’s initial statement was ill-considered and, in fact, astounding in its lack of sensitivity for the victims,their families, and all of those who had considered Penn State athletics above reproach.  Where was the acknowledgment of empathy, of responsibility, of the need to investigate the situation further and take steps to prevent such events in the future?  Get the facts before you respond– think about the implications, take responsibility — all basic tenets of crisis communications that neither the president — nor the coach, in subsequent actions and statements — seemed to understand.  The result is the typical backpedaling, “correcting” of the story, and increasingly desperate attempts to save face that we’ve seen again and again.  And now a major well-respected university faces an immense task in rebuilding relationships, trust, and reputation.  Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that Penn State has yet to send any communication at all to its alumni (full disclosure: my spouse is one). Surprising to me is that Penn State has a well-respected public relations team — I  have to wonder if they had a place at the table or were they, like the Board, ignored until it was too late?

    • Thanks for your comments, Judy. It is very interesting that Penn State has yet to communicate directly with its alumni, particularly in regards to how they will rebuild their trust and the university’s reputation and credibility.

      I see that the University’s athletics department has a message up on its website now ( addressing the issue, but as of yesterday, I couldn’t find any news on that website of the situation or the fact that at that point (yesterday), Coach Paterno had announced his resignation at the end of the season.

      All in all, a tragic situation that has been poorly communicated by almost all parties involved from day one.

      Keith Trivitt, PRSA

  • Well said, Keith and Arthur.
    Our job as public relations practitioners is not to paper over the misdeeds of our employers and expertly spin the story narrative in another direction. During a crisis, our responsibility is to counsel those we represent as they evaluate next steps, to effectively communicate their decisions and to ensure all internal and external constituencies understand the changed behaviors that can be expected. Culture and human failing was the problem at Penn State, and that’s not a public relations problem. When the culture issues have been addressed (and that’s underway), the university can move on with its public relations programs.

  • Thank you, gentlemen. Your thoughts inspired my to lay out lessons for my students from this case — and the first of those lessons links back to this post. The story cuts deep, as my family’s Penn State ties go back to 1950, the year my dad, my uncle and JoePa arrived in Happy Valley. Thanks, Arthur and Keith for your thoughts. I hope you don’t mind if I share mine as well.

    • Many thanks for the compliments, Bill. I saw your post and appreciated the commentary that came from it in the comments section. Good insight from many PR pros who have weathered a few crises in their days.

  • Arthur and Keith are right public relations does not make organizational misdeeds go away.
    However public relations can help to manage a bad situation through responding promptly to stakeholder inquiries and by providing instructing and adjusting information to stakeholders affected by the crisis. However, to do these things well requires that public relations is at the management table.

  • Keith and Arthur, Your point about what public relations can and cannot do is spot on. But it  seems to me the rest is speculation — why didn’t PSU reach out to all its alumni, as Judy understandably questions; where are the statements that should have been coming to the campus, alumni, parents, public on the website and other formats; why did the president speak so grievously out of turn this weekend; and so on. Supposing that the public relations’ team at PSU, none of whom I know by the way, is responsible for these matters seems questionable, as for all we know, the board told everyone else to get out of the way for the time being. That would not be good management, but there is a lot to learn yet about what has happened behind the scenes on campus that may have impacted the public relations professionals there. So I think we should separate the institutional handling from the actions (or lack thereof) of the public relations team, as we don’t know the internal situation that has carried this week.

    • Thanks, Pete. I think you’ve really nailed the reality of this situation: as PR pros, it is in our DNA to always want to help an organization communicate is values and better connect with its stakeholders. But sometimes, external factors (such as higher-up management, privacy concerns, etc.) prevent us from doing so.

      I completely agree that it’s far too soon to point fingers at anyone involved in the University’s response (though many in the media and even in the PR industry already are, with predictable, but cliched, tongue lashings). I imagine more will come out of this in terms of how the University handled its response and what factors went into that, but for now, I hope we can all agree that yes, PR has a lot it can offer in terms of rebuilding the University’s reputation and managing this crisis, but it will not all-out solve the crisis. That requires a much deeper, introspective look by Penn State and all of college athletics as to where it fits within the fabric of society and how its morals line up with those of society.

  • I, too, am irritated when a huge moral failing or crime is termed a “PR problem,” and agree 100% that PR cannot fix this situation. Yet poor communications in this case made the situation worse. Spanier’s initial statement was breathtaking in its insularity and lack of regard for the alleged victims. Even as a casual reader of this news last weekend, I was shocked by the university’s initial response – nothing about cooperating with the investigation, no compassion or concern for the children or community. Publicly “closing ranks” after the disclosure of shocking, eyewitness accounts of sexual abuse of at-risk kids & a 13-year coverup is pretty crappy PR practice, IMO. More here

    • Thanks for chiming in, Dorothy. Your assessment that PR cannot fix this situation, but bad comms has exacerbated what is already a very tragic and poorly managed situation is spot-on. After all of this came out, Penn State seemed to clam up, at least from an organizational perspective. As you note, it publicly “closed ranks,” its leadership didn’t display compassion or even a sense of the severity of the situation and how it was effecting people far beyond its campus, and most involved seemed tone-deaf to what the country and those impacted by the tragic events were truly feeling.

      And that’s where Penn State lost many and where it now has significant ground to make up in terms of rebuilding trust with the public and its students and restoring its once stellar reputation. 

  • We may  be splitting hairs here, but I can tell you from experience alone that if Penn State doesn’t undertake an aggressive reputation recovery program, which includes PR, they will never get out of the abyss to level ground. Forget climbing the mountain again, they just need to get out of the hole.  Rule of thumb: the more horrendous the crisis, the longer it takes to recover. Suffice it to say, things will never be the same again in Happy Valley, esp. on Saturdays, but they can recover as an institution, I believe. 

  • I agree with much of what you say in this post, but also know that an experienced, sixth-sense kind of PR crisis manager would have helped manage the responses of this alleged tragedy from the outset. The absence of a PR plan and coherent and sympathetic response hurt Penn State more than it was already going to suffer, and will as new details emerge. 

    Here, I suggest what could have been done, what other universities should have in place just in case (be prepared!) and note that Penn State needs to move forward and in a more organized fashion: 

  • As a human being, this is a tragedy.  As a Penn State Alumni this has been a nightmare. As a public relations professional, this has been alarming.  While, your point that public relations couldn’t fix this is true, this is scandal that is full of emotion and touches many.  Part of our job is to do what we can to manage the message in good times and during times of crisis. That is where Penn State dropped the ball (for lack of a better analogy).  The grand jury investigation should have been the catalyst for legal and public relations to develop a crisis plan.  If that plan was to not let anyone comment, or issue a general “no comment,” so be it, but to let Graham Spanier voice the university’s support for the charged administrators and announce that the university would be paying their legal fees was inappropriate at best.  This was the first message from the university and fueled the hatred towards Penn State because of its lack of acknowledgement for the victims.  There were no statements until Wednesday night when Spanier and Paterno were fired, which was also the first thing that they did right from a PR standpoint.  Wednesday night was the first that any messages were posted on the Penn State Facebook page, while Thursday was the first time anything was sent to alumni. This was a communications failure on all levels.  While PR can’t solve the underlying moral failures of individuals at, or associated with, the university, a communications strategy that stayed ahead of the issue would have alleviated some of the animosity towards the university.

  • As a rejoinder to my own commentary in the above post and comments, I think Paul Holmes of the eponymous Holmes Report makes an excellent point in his column ( about the differences between communications and PR problems. Relaying third-party feedback of the PRWeek NeXT Conference, Holmes notes that CBS Corp. communications chief Gil Scwartz, who was a conference keynoter, claimed that recent controversies such as “Bank of America’s ill-conceived $5 debit card surcharge, NetFlix’s fatal decision to intro then kill Quikster, BP’s Tony Hayward’s thoughtless sound bites, and Herman Cain’s alleged personal transgressions” aren’t PR problems but “behavioral, decision-making or operational problems, which PR often can help to resolve.”

    Holmes slaps down this assertion by astutely pointing out that Schwartz’s role at CBS is communications, rather than its public relations. So he may perceive an issue like Bank of America’s reputation hit following its proposed debit-card surcharge as a communications issue rather an a PR/reputation problem — after all, the company effectively communicated that it was going to introduce the surcharge.

    In that regard, I’m rethinking a bit of the premise in this post. Perhaps it’s too narrow for us to say that public relations won’t fix Penn State’s crisis. On the other hand, I think our main point still holds up: that it’s incredibly opportunistic and irresponsible for PR pros to immediately claim that all Penn State needed was better PR/comms and none of this would have happened (or at least not to the degree which we have now found out).

    All of which has me believing we’re only just beginning to scratch the surface of the reputational fallout and where PR comes into play.

    (Edited by moderator to fix spacing issues.)

  • I pass along this opening from the Monday morning Penn State “Football Letter” (which of course is typically quite boosterish), as an example of sensitive, appropriate, and candid communication at this very difficult time for the university:

    “With heavy hearts, more than 100,000 spectators in Beaver Stadium
    stood in silent support for victims of child abuse Saturday before the
    scheduled Penn State-Nebraska football game.

    “Concern and prayers for the well being of victims and their families took
    precedence over the play on the gridiron, which came at the end of the worst
    week in history for Penn State and Penn Staters, as played out daily by every
    news medium in the nation.

    “But as one of the first steps toward the continuance of daily life that
    follows all tragedies, young athletes from two state universities stepped onto
    the Beaver Stadium turf to play a planned nationally televised football game.

    “The Nittany Lions, too young to have known anything of the actions and
    inactions alleged in a grand jury presentment, slowly walked out of the tunnel
    on Senior Day in ranks of four with arms interlocked to the cheers of fans, who
    in no way assigned them any responsibility in this unfathomable horror…”

    • Roland – Thank you for providing the opening of the Penn State “Football Letter” and for sharing with us a sampling of the University’s evolving communications around its crisis. It’s certainly encouraging to see this type of candid and sensitive communication coming from the University, particularly as it struggles to make sense of what is a still-evolving situation. 

  •  Thank you for an important discussion. Reading through Arthur and Keith’s post and subsequent commentary, I find certain inconsistencies in precisely defining what a public relations catastrophe is, and consequently in determining what a professional public relations response can and should be. Those inconsistencies are muddying the waters even among people in our own profession.
    If one defines a “public relations disaster” as when an organization looks really bad following a failure of leadership, that automatically sets limits on what is expected of public relations people to respond to it. If instead the former is defined as “when the relationships among an organization and its stakeholders are severely damaged and in crisis,” then the true scope of a strategic public relations response becomes more clear.
    That response, in my opinion, is not to even try to sweep up after the ghastly parade, but to change its course. I respectfully disagree that, for Penn State or any other organization, this would entail “a cultural shift within an organization that goes far beyond public relations’ scope.” That’s only if you see public relations as telling people what happened in the past and what’s happening now from the institution’s point of view—describing events rather than managing them.  
    If you see public relations as a leadership function that truly engages all those affected inside and outside the organization to arrive at mutually determined solutions, then the response of people in our profession becomes dramatically deeper and more relevant. Who else but public relations professionals should bring the perspectives of all constituencies to organizational leaders and help to conduct the very difficult process of incorporating diverse perspectives to arrive at lasting solutions?
    Does that sound like the job of leadership? Well, yes. And try having effective leadership without effective public relations. They are inseparable. And if spotlighting, navigating and incorporating the vastly differing views of affected publics into an organization’s very DNA  sounds tough, it’s because it is. But it’s not as tough as the outcomes of not doing so.
    The problem Penn State faces today is not what it should have done; it’s what it should do next. I submit that if public relations is not involved in fixing that problem in fundamental ways—focused on what to do much more than what to say—then we should stick to record-breaking Popsicle contests and the like but not harbor any illusions about our organizational relevance.

  • In my public relations career that has spanned over 4 decades I have had many occasion to march behind the elephants with a shovel and broom in hand. As a profession we spend a great deal of time developing crisis response plans. On the one hand that’s a wise thing to do; on the other we have collectively learned that we often wind up there. We even award honors to outstanding crisis response programs. I wish we could find a way to establish a “crisis avoided” Silver Anvil to honor the professionals who have earned the trust and respect of top management, have scanned the environment for areas of risk and championed policy and practice to reduce or eliminate risk to reputation. During the period alleged incidents of sexual abuse of minors was taking place on the Penn State campus, the sexual abuse of minors by clergy was front-page headline news across the country. Our duty as public relations professionals is to connect the dots and raise warning flags: does our organization have relationships with minors or vulnerable adults where we may have exposure to risk? Do we have policies and practices in place to minimize the risk of harm? Do we have proper reporting procedures in place?  If we learn to ask questions like this, we should find ourselves with a broom and shovel in hand much less frequently.

  • I agree with the
    writers that PR alone cannot fix the Penn State crisis.  I’ve been reading a lot of articles and it
    seems that most journalists and communications professionals are pointing out
    the university’s PR mistakes but forgetting to mention that you can’t use
    public relations to fix a problem that has more to do with huge management
    failures than public relations failures. It’s the sort of thought that this
    problem can be “PR’ed” away that gives people the wrong impression of what public
    relations professionals do. I do believe, like the writers of this post, that
    Bill Mahon could have helped this situation from being a crisis had he known
    about it before and that PR will contribute to Penn State getting out of this
    crisis, but I don’t believe Mahon or the Ketchum team alone can make this
    situation go away.  Strategic
    communications coming from the university will only be successful if they can
    be traced back to actual, right, business decisions.


    At the end of
    the day, the only thing that could have prevented this crisis is to have done
    something, anything about Sandusky and the allegations against him in 1998, 2000
    or even 2002. Then, a public relations team could have used the morally correct
    decision to do something about the accused individual to reinstate the trust between
    the public and Penn State. 

  • I
    completely agree with this post.  The
    ordeal at Penn State is not a crisis for the school or for the football
    program; it is a crisis for the well-being of the young boys who were sexually
    abused.  PR professionals should not be
    held responsible for cleaning up a mess that could have been prevented had
    officials been notified years ago. 

    realistic terms, what could a PR person do to clean up a mess like this?  Call a press conference and issue an
    apology?  I don’t think that or any other
    tactic could salvage the program at this point, and it should not salvage the
    program.  PR people are constantly being
    critiqued on acting ethically, and even attempting to smooth out this situation
    would, in my opinion, be unethical. 
    Unless something is dug up and revealed that all of these claims against
    the Penn State defensive coach were lies, I think PR people should stay away
    from this case.  Once new coaches and
    athletic directors are appointed, then the PR people can step in to highlight the
    new administration’s goals for the “new” program.

  • I completely agree with this post.  The ordeal at Penn State is not a crisis for
    the school or for the football program; it is a crisis for the well-being of
    the young boys who were sexually abused. 
    PR professionals should not be held responsible for cleaning up a mess
    that could have been prevented had officials been notified years ago. 

    In realistic terms, what could a PR person do to
    clean up a mess like this?  Call a press
    conference and issue an apology?  I don’t
    think that or any other tactic could salvage the program at this point, and it
    should not salvage the program.  PR
    people are constantly being critiqued on acting ethically, and even attempting
    to smooth out this situation would, in my opinion, be unethical.  Unless something is dug up and revealed that
    all of these claims against the Penn State defensive coach were lies, I think
    PR people should stay away from this case. 
    Once new coaches and athletic directors are appointed, then the PR
    people can step in to highlight the new administration’s goals for the “new”

  •      I agree with the authors of this article.
    The terrible events that have occurred at Penn State at the hands of Jerry
    Sandusky are not cause for a Public Relations swoop in and save reputation. What
    has occurred here is not an error of judgment or even a “mistake” but rather a
    social and moral tragedy; one that should cause key figures involved, the
    university administration overall and other schools, colleges and universities
    to pause and consider whether or not they have created a truly safe environment
    for students.


    It is a well-known fact that
    college campuses are not taking enough preventative or punitive action against
    sexual assault; this situation is yet another unfortunate reminder of that fact.
    Campuses should be implementing programs especially where young children at a
    summer camp are concerned.


    As far as I am concerned a
    PR guardian angel couldn’t save the Penn State at this point and furthermore
    shouldn’t. This is a moral disaster and should be treated as such. Public
    Relations should not be viewed as the sunshine cleaning service to mop up legal
    messes. Last time I checked that was what attorney’s were for? I really hope
    Joe Amendola knows what he has gotten himself into. Speaking of which, he himself
    has a very interesting backstory. When he was 49-years-old Amendola had
    relations with a 16-year-old client who fathered his child and who he later
    married. And the plot thickens.  It now
    doesn’t surprise me that the creep told NBC’s Bob Costas that he would trust
    Sandusky around his children.


    My attitude toward the whole
    situation is one of sadness and disgust. How are parents supposed to trust school
    officials and employees who claim to work in a safe learning environment around
    their children? I would think twice.

  • I agree with the author of this post and many of the users who have commented that simply a public relations campaign cannot fix the Penn State crisis. The fact that the sexual abuse was kept secret and under wraps for so long is in a way its own crisis, a crisis that gives many public relations professionals in ethical practice areas an undeserved negative reputation. While the Penn State community was trying to hide Sandusky’s abuse because they thought it would protect the reputation of both the school and the football program, it only caused a snowball effect, which resulted in something far beyond a public relations nightmare. 

    If Sandusky’s sexual abuse had been reported in a timely fashion, this could have resulted in the abuse of much fewer victims and Sandusky could have been handled by legal authorities, leaving the rest of the Penn State community out of the spotlight, and showing the management at the university as having a conscience. 

    I really like the line in this blog post that says “now is not the time to hold up public relations as the soap that can wash away Penn State’s crisis.” It is true that public relations cannot fix or erase moral failures and legal obligations. The entire cultural atmosphere at Penn State needs to be reconsidered and this also holds true for all large universities and athletic programs in the country. This is far beyond a public relations crisis, and more of an organizational and cultural crisis.

  • […] while it was arguably more of a moral question. As PR professionals in students understand, no “PR magic” can fix a wrongdoing, but proactive communication can make it clear to the public that the organization in question does […]

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