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.
Having dealt with plane crashes and stock market crashes, my approach for handling a crisis of this magnitude would be to work very closely with the senior administration to determine what management issues need restructuring and to what extent the communications function needs changing. It seems worth asking whether Penn State’s different colleges and schools are properly aligned when it comes to communications. Furthermore, are all of its programs, including its athletics department, working together with the University’s external relations team to speak with one voice?
When asked for his perspective on how Penn State has handled the communications around this crisis, John R. Brooks, APR, director of media relations and news at North Park University in Chicago, noted that there is a key lesson regarding priorities that communicators should learn from the Penn State situation.
“It is imperative [for communicators to understand] that when the law is broken, the authorities must be called immediately,” said Brooks. “That must be the first action of the organization before anything else. The organization also owes its constituents some public word as soon as possible about the issue, its values, what it is doing about the issue and acknowledgement of the victims of the abuse. That word should have come from the University in the days immediately following the story breaking. It would not have changed the eventual outcome for the people involved, but it would have avoided the loud silence of official comment that seemed to exist.”
Phil de Haan, who works in public relations at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and teaches a course on advertising and public relations, noted the communications gap that still exists between Penn State authorities and the public.
“PR professionals are boundary spanners, bridging the gaps between an organization and its publics,” said de Haan.
“At Penn State, the gap is pretty big, and the PR professionals there are going to have to stretch pretty hard to span that gap. It is what they are starting to do already, and it is what they’re going to have to continue to do.
“A place like Penn State has a plethora of publics, most of whom, right now, have more questions than answers. Listening to the questions and providing answers is the hard work of public relations and that work will have to go on for a long, long time as the University seeks to rebuild its public trust.”
Karen Freberg, who teaches strategic communication at the University of Louisville, wrote to us with three key points on how Penn State can effectively communicate throughout this crisis:
- Acknowledge action steps with strong rhetoric. While there has been a change of staff with the University administration and football team with a new interim head coach, internal cultures do not change overnight. Penn State needs to state exactly how it is going to make sure this does not happen again. One way to initiate this is to establish a new evaluation code for all athletic staff members. Academics are reviewed every year and are observed in their classroom, but there is no such program set in place for coaches or other athletic officials. Actions in this case speak louder than words.
- Be transparent and consistent in regards to updates and news with social media in crisis. Monitor, engage and update followers on the social media platforms while also observing what people are sharing online (e.g., news articles, videos, blog posts, etc.), as well as trending organic hashtags and key words circulating via Twitter.
- Take initiative to make serious changes in the athletic world to move forward. Form an alliance and partnership with other collegiate sports to create awareness and training about this issue for all athletic staff members and work with the NCAA to implement.
Larry D. Lauer, vice chancellor of government affairs at TCU, shared with us a blog post he wrote immediately following news of the Penn State crisis. Lauer says that, “An experienced communication officer knows all the ‘rules’ about crisis management. But, finding all the facts at the worst possible time about a scandal like this can be nearly impossible, let alone finding them quickly.”
He also points out that in a crisis of this magnitude, “There is no way to really fix the situation. … You try to follow the crisis chapter in the textbook to the letter. … The awful reality, however, is that most of the time you will actually learn about a crisis like this from the press! … You may never know the whole truth.”
What new communications realities have you taken from the Penn State crisis? How might you have handled a similar, career-defining situation?