Lessons Learned from Penn State

Are there lessons learned from Penn State? As university crises go, the Penn State scandal involving Jerry Sandusky will be the subject of scrutiny for decades. And now with two firms who share a monthly PR retainer of more than $200,000 to confine the damages – there will be even more media scrutiny to check on all that went wrong.

Scandal control is definitely expensive.

According to The Associated Press, the running tab for PR support of the last several months has also been a whopper: “Penn State incurred about $7.5 million in expenses through the end of February as it deals with the scandal’s aftermath. Most of that tab, about $5.3 million, was spent on crisis communications and on an internal probe by FBI ex-director Louis Freeh.”

Jerry Sandusky, Penn State’s former assistant football coach, has pleaded not guilty to sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years. Sandusky’s November arrest and case proceedings continue to dominate the news.

As the chosen firms, Edelman and La Torre Communications, begin to sort out the prospects of communicating all that is going on to staff, faculty, students, alumni (aka donors) and media, the issue of these kinds of extraordinary payments for damage control will remain part of the news.

For a public university that relies on public funds, the next phase of damage control will no doubt be (privately or publicly) with politicians.

Maribeth Roman Schmidt, founding partner and president of Vault Communications in Philadelphia, told a local newspaper that she believes the university needs more than a new public relations campaign to regain trust.

“You can tap dance all you want to one side, but it’s all disingenuous until you address the matter that has not been resolved,” she said.

When a crisis hits, there are three very quick things to do: Gather information, assess the situation, and get a response as soon as possible to priority stakeholders (including the media).

Crisis communications isn’t rocket science. Cutting to the chase doesn’t require mega spin or require a mastermind of stealth to execute. A crisis does, however, require a few moves that many people don’t make – and thusly muck up much of their own story.

Here are the three most common mistakes made when navigating a crisis:

  1. Being unable to distance fact from emotion (impartiality and tough questions are necessary in a crisis);
  2. Letting others fill in the information holes (creating a great landscape for opportunistic critics);
  3. Being ill prepared as the calls come in (and there is no excuse for this one in our online world).

Crises come and go. Media attention spans are short. But if you conquer one, you can conquer any. Never should there be a moment of doubt and indecision, because if there is, you will be lost.

Get a plan in place, keep your plan updated and make sure you know all the facts before you respond. Those small prep steps will keep you out of the middle of a crisis smackdown.

If you’re not sure what to do, make a call to an expert. Consultations are usually free and you can get your house in order with a dispassionate outside expert. Make sure that lessons learned from Penn State are lessons that can benefit others especially in higher education.

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