ImPRessions

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Un-Happy Valley: Penn State’s Massive PR Fumble

“… I wish to say that Tim Curley and Gary Schultz have my unconditional support. I have known and worked daily with Tim and Gary for more than 16 years. I have complete confidence in how they have handled the allegations about a former University employee.  Tim Curley and Gary Schultz operate at the highest levels of honesty, integrity and compassion.”

There are so many disturbing aspects of the Penn State sex abuse scandal that it’s painful to try to analyze them. (If  you want to be sick, take a look at the Grand Jury indictment.) But, from a public relations perspective, Penn State President Graham Spanier’s statement is a classic example of what not to do. From the beginning, it was a signal that, rather than taking the investigation and charges of a 13-year coverup seriously, its response would be tone-deaf, defensive, and insular.

The scandal has already claimed head coach and college football legend Joe Paterno’s job, and before the week is out, I predict it will take Spanier’s as well. And well it should.

Beyond a parenthetical reference to “protecting children” Spanier’s statement ignores the alleged underage victims of the abuse. It calls the charges “troubling” (a ludicrous understatement) but fails to express any concern for the children, their families, or the community. It’s almost completely focused on closing ranks and defending the reputations and records of the staffers accused of keeping silent about crimes against children, and of lying to a Grand Jury about their own actions.

The statement sends several messages, all terrible. It suggests that the university need not conduct itself by “ordinary” rules or procedures. It should not be investigated or challenged, possibly because it operates by a different standard, within its own walls.

Is it any wonder that the leadership within those walls are accused of covering up illegal and disgusting behavior for over a decade? Sure, it’s just a statement, but, remember, this “troubling” crisis didn’t exactly sneak up on them. The Grand Jury investigation started in 2008. Spanier had to have known. There was plenty of time for the university to align itself with the forces of good…or, better yet, to go public, admit its failures, and clean house.

So, the statement is just the tip of a large, ugly iceberg. But it signals the first, fumbled play in a losing reputation communications strategy of insensitivity, myopia, and incompetence.

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Comments

  1. Donina Ifurung

    Dorothy:
    I had the same thoughts when I heard the statement issued by the University President, and left the following comment on another blogger’s site:
    I think that Penn State’s statement was a cop-out. As an institution, it bears responsibility for all that occurs there! It’s just like a parent whose child has done something wrong, “Oh, sorry! What he/ she is not a reflection on me. It’s not my fault.” Something about the way Penn has handled any past (or current) indiscretions and illegals acts made the it “okay” for the disgusting pig to do what he did to little children. As agents of the university, any faculty or staff witnesses should be criminally accountable. And I think that it’s pretty sad that as a society and culture, we no longer want to decry immoral and wrong behavior, all in an attempt to be politically correct or not want to step on toes.

    Your last sentence summarizes Penn State’s “state of mind” – thinking only of its reputation, and hoping a statement will ease everybody’s hearts and minds. PR nightmare that will bite them in years to come.

    http://www.aclosetwriter.com/2011/11/10/your-weekly-dose-of-wth-2/

  2. Dorothy Crenshaw

    Thanks, Donina. Something tells me that this hasn’t even played out fully. Stay tuned.

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