Important Lessons from Penn State

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.

The sanctions came in response to a report issued by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, which found that Penn State officials concealed childhood sexual abuse by an assistant football coach for fear of “bad publicity.”

Decisions made for short-term benefit often have long-term consequences, especially in the social media age when transparency and disclosure are expected and bad news spreads quickly and virally, often in 140 characters or less. If there’s anything positive that can be taken away from the Penn State scandal it’s the valuable lessons the scandal provides for public relations professionals.

In no particular order, they are:

Lesson 1: Cover-ups don’t work

Ignoring a situation in the hopes it will go away or taking steps to insure that others do not discover an atrocious situation are simply poor decisions. Confronting situations head on and addressing them immediately may have a negative, short-term impact  but will be manageable and  defensible over the long term.

If senior officials at Penn State had been open about the accusations before them and taken appropriate action, they would have been in a more tenable situation to handle any resulting media coverage. The public would have responded more favorably to immediate action than to a cover-up.

Lesson 2: Reputation is everything

Reputations take years to build and only moments to destroy. The advent of social media has only elevated the stakes.

The reality is that reputations will always be at stake when bad news is on the table. When facing a crisis, protecting an organization’s interests and reputation should always be considered and addressed. Maintaining a positive reputation is easier when leadership is forthright and honest; people respect honesty more than they respect lies and obfuscation (See Lesson 1).

Lesson 3: The American Public is Forgiving

Child sexual abuse is unforgivable, and any effort to conceal it unconscionable. But the American public has an unlimited capacity to forgive, especially when crises like these are handled in the correct way: openly, honestly, expediently and responsibly, and with assurances that there is a plan for preventing similar occurrences from ever happening again.

Already, in the wake of the NCAA’s announcement, we’re seeing articles, blog posts and letters to the editor that view Penn State in sympathetic light for standing up and accepting the sanctions, which many view as overly harsh, with dignity and respect.

Lesson 4: Public relations practitioners have a seat – Use it

Public relations professionals have long argued for the need to have a seat at the table; this is less an issue of ego issue than of protecting reputations and ensur­ing organizations behave in a way that is consistent with their character.  The fact is the PR Pro has a seat whether management acknowledges it or not.  The PR Pro on the other hand must be proactive and use it.

Senior officials must have all the facts when making a decision; that includes hearing from everyone with a vested interest in the organization. Not only is it important for a senior official to hear varying opinions, but it is critical that the public relations representative be able to prepare for the public scrutiny that may come.

At Penn State, senior officials don’t appear to have consulted with the public relations professionals who could have helped the university avert the crisis it is now facing. Instead, officials traded “total disregard” for the safety and welfare of child victims for avoiding a few bad headlines.  And it is incumbent for the professional to speak out and be heard.

Lesson 5: Be proactive, not reactive

Organizations not only should have a regularly updated crisis communications plan, they should proactively address issues before they become uncontrollable.

Addressing issues that could, or do, arise allows an organization to manage, rather than react, to crisis situations. Leadership can better drive the conversation if they are leading, rather than reacting, to it.

Penn State ignored the grand jury investigation last year and left itself in the untenable position of responding to the findings. Officials would have been well served to have been proactively addressing the investigation rather than continuing down the same insular path that led them to the ending they now find themselves.

Hindsight may be 20/20 but it provides valuable lessons for the future. If Penn State officials had known in 1998 what they know now, they would have been able to preserve the university history and their head football coach’s legacy.

Gerard F. Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA, is PRSA’s 2012 Chair and CEO.

About the author

Gerard F. Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA


  • The biggest failing of the Penn State Board of Trustees, or maybe this was responsibility of the administration, I don’t know, was their complete failure to institute a culture of Cleary Act compliance from the very beginning.  I work for the US Government and we undergo compliance training all the time which crates a culture of compliance in my agency.  Cleary Act requires reporting of even possible criminal activity.  All of this could/would have been avoided. 

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