Analysis: PR Lessons From The Penn State Crisis

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?

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, is chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America.

About the author

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, Fellow PRSA

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the Vice President of Corporate Communications at Wells Fargo & Company, Florida. Fiske was PRSA's Chair and CEO in 2011.


  • A few days ago when Keith and Arthur posted, “Public Relations Won’t Fix Penn State’s Crisis,” I was critical of their piece. It suggested that PR’s role in a crisis was to whitewash and explain. I believe you fairly capture PR’s most valuable role in a crisis is to serve as an agent of change.

    • Glad you liked the post, Dan. Though, to clarify, in the post Arthur and I wrote on this subject ( we were making the point that it is not appropriate for PR pros to suddenly glom onto terrible situations like this one with the mantra of “better PR could have saved PR.” We saw this very early in the crisis, both from the media and within the PR profession, as people tried to justify the situation as a normal “PR catastrophe” (as The New York Times put it) when I think most can agree this is anything but a traditional crisis, whether from a PR, management or even legal aspect.

      No, I think this situation breaks the mold for crisis management.

      You rightly note that public relations’ most valuable role is as an “agent of change.” I certainly will not argue with you on that point. However, we (Arthur and I) still maintain our initial key point that public relations can’t fix failures of moral and legal obligations. That requires a shift in organizational priorities that goes far beyond the scope of most management functions.

  • I like throughout the article how you point on various times
    that in crisis communication, a big part of how it is done successfully is
    based on how well the organization on a whole communicates internally before
    they can begin to heal the damage done to their outside publics. I believe that
    Penn State needs to figure out where things went wrong and move on from there
    and communicate to their publics on where the problem began and how they are
    going to correct it from here on out.

    I also agree with Karen Freberg’s points on how they should
    go about fixing the current crisis they are in. Penn State will never be able
    to totally erase the damage done in the case, but they can try their best to
    make amends for their actions. All they can do is look forward and move on,
    most importantly focusing on their community and various publics to rebuild the
    relationship. The change and understanding has to come from within the
    University internally and from there the public relations can help them to
    choose the best tools to help communicate their messages and initiatives.

    • Thank you very much for your comment, Ppallas. You have made some great points as well about the Penn State crisis.  The university does need to move forward and ensure that the changes come at all levels within the institution from administration to athletics.  What seems to be lacking in the most part are the voices coming from inside the organization as well as the use of brand ambassadors for the university and athletic program.

      Thank you again for your comments.

      Best Wishes,
      Karen Freberg

  • I would have to disagree with notion that this is not a public relations
    issue as the event itself deals directly with relaying a message to the
    public. There are the obvious and important management concerns that
    the university has to address, but what about the responsibility to the
    community? A situation was reported to a university official and was
    essentially ignored until now. Therefore the university should now focus
    its efforts on conveying the message that this will never happen again
    under the noses of their administration.

     Furthermore, what seems to be
    taking a backseat in this situation is the cause of this scandal, child
    molestation. Joe Paterno’s dismissal may have been untimely, and
    undeserved but does it still trump the lives of the victims that have
    been forever changed by Jerry Sandusky? While I think Karen Freburg’s idea of a partnership between other collegiate athletic departments is a good one, I think it would make more an impact to make a partnership with charitable organizations that focus on the prevention of sex crimes such as these.

    This is an opportunity for Penn
    State to focus its efforts on public service and community relations
    rather than an error in management.

    • Jmcclelland – I think you have raised an excellent point in addressing the focus and responsibility towards the community.  I believe that there are many publics that are going to be impacted by this crisis other than the university itself that the media and others have not yet taken into consideration.  

      I do agree with you in regards to partnering with charitable organizations to focus on the prevention of crimes such as these.  The reason why I suggested the partnership with other athletic departments is that this needs to be incorporated within all athletic departments in terms of the coaches and athlete orientation across the nation.  This crisis is not only just about Penn State, but it also impacts all college athletics and various sports – so this is an opportunity for Penn State to initiate this effort and bring focus to this issue to make sure that it does not happen again not only at Penn State, but other universities as well.

      Thank you again for sharing your insights and comments.  Have a great evening.

      Best Wishes,
      Karen Freberg

  • I also disagree with the opinion that this incident is not a PR issue. Although the fact that the management aspect in the athletics department is to blame. I feel that this is only a trigger to what has become a major PR flop on the part of Penn State. Now that the story is out, there is nothing that Penn State can do to change that. However, I do not think that firing Joe Paterno was the right answer. I think they lost a lot of fan base by doing that, in absence of a more thorough investigation. Whenever anyone used to think Penn State athletics they thought of Joe Paterno. Now, you think of a sex scandal that ruins the reputation of this school. PR practitioners are in the business of crisis management and damage control. So, this is a PR issue and how they handle this problem from here on out will define the future thoughts of the public opinion of Penn State. 

  • I like the points that were made throughout the article by
    the different college public relations professionals. The public relations
    department wasn’t prepared for the Penn State scandal. The university
    management administrators had plenty of time to handle the crisis properly
    before it went public. They were aware of this issue years before now. I
    believe the management administrators let the media influence their decisions
    relating to the Penn State scandal. A major example is the firing of Joe
    Paterno which I disagreed with completely. I believe they rushed into his
    firing because of the media asking questions about whether he should have been
    fired or not. A lot of questions went unanswered even after town hall meetings.
    I don’t see Penn State rebuilding their image anytime soon after this crisis. While
    the universities management administrators more than likely had the most
    information. It’s the job of the public relations professional to help the
    university keep a positive image and inform the publics of issues like these.


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