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.