The events of this past week have effectively re-written the history of Penn State University. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) handed down unprecedented sanctions against the school, which erased 14 years of football victories, reduced football scholarships and prohibited bowl appearances for the next four years and divested the university of $60 million in funds, Even before these sanctions were announced, university administrators took action by directing the removal of the Joe Paterno statue that stood outside Beaver Stadium.
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The crisis enveloping Penn State has taken the world by storm. In less than two weeks, it has become one of the most engrossing scandals in recent memory. As in most crises, the University’s response is being heavily dissected and debated among the commentariat.
We asked several respected college public relations professionals — those who manage on-campus crises in their daily work — for insight into the lessons the University’s response offers public relations professionals.
As we wrote last week in PRSAY, this situation is more than a mere PR crisis or a “PR catastrophe” (as The New York Times pegged it). It goes far beyond that, evoking issues of management and culture, morality and how big-time college athletics fits within higher education.
In short, this isn’t a PR issue; it’s a management issue. This does not showcase poor public relations; it reflects poor leadership.
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.
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PRSAY is a forum for PRSA members and other public relations professionals to engage in a dialogue with PRSA leaders, exchange viewpoints, and share perspectives on issues of concern to the Society and the public relations industry as a whole. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policies or positions of PRSA.