Penn State six months earlier, in the still Happy Valley calm


In the billions of words written and spoken about the Penn State tragedy, few focused on what university leaders should have done to manage the impending — that is to say, inevitable — crisis.

And why is a niche view like that relevant? Because they were charged with protecting the broader institution’s reputation. That translates into increasing or decreasing numbers of applicants; perceived tuition value and degree quality; graduate job prospects; memorabilia income; alumni donations; professor recruiting; and hundreds of other facts of a successful university’s life.

Rare is the opportunity to have at least a six-month head start on a crisis that will obviously — at least to the outside world — consume your organization. Spring football affords ample time for preparation, coaching and strategy for use and execution in the pressure-cooker of a fall Big Ten title race; like that opportunity, crises are best-managed in warm, sunny calm, before they splatter your reputation with cold November mud.

BP’s crisis started with an explosion; Herman Cain‘s began with a politico.com report; Anthony Weiner‘s started when his tweeted picture went viral. The lesson here, for discussion in-depth another day, is that every organization will experience debilitating crisis at some point and you should prepare for it in advance, when work and life permit logical decision-making.

Included in that deliberative process for Penn State could have been a re-ordering of priorities, away from football and to a realization by intelligent, sensitive people that they had to put the victims first.

That most certainly applies when a grand jury is impaneled to investigate crimes of stunning depravity in your backyard and a newspaper — in this case the Harrisburg Patriot-News — gives you a public heads up by reporting all this in March 2011. As in: If you thought you could keep this out of the media, you were wrong.

I doubt that top Penn State officials were so arrogant as to figure they could blunt or ignore or cover up the alleged molestations based simply on the leaders’ status and place in Pennsylvania’s hierarchy. But if they did, the mistake was fatal; the lesson for the rest of us invaluable.

That Penn State officials lived in denial seems obvious — President Graham Spanier‘s defiant first statement when the Jerry Sandusky arrest finally broke backed his two top lieutenants, whom the grand jury charged with perjury.

From a crisis-management standpoint, Spanier and his communications experts — he had a whole university department stocked with some of the best anywhere — should have prepared for the inevitable tidal wave when it was a mere ripple hundreds of miles from shore. Too late when it was about to wash him and Coach Joe Paterno from their respected offices.

[My experience tells me that Spanier and others all but certainly received this advice multiple times from his professional communications experts, and paid no attention. Don’t think for a second that the pros BP hired told former CEO Tony Hayward that going back to Britain for a weekend on his yacht, mid-spill, would help the cause. My bet is he didn’t ask  or listen; nor did Spanier.]

Would he and did he argue that Sandusky might not have been indicted? Irrelevant. You prepare and practice for the worst. We’ve had multiple clients with crisis plans ready to roll out, issue-based and advocacy microsites prepped, ads approved and media space and time reserved, when the crisis evaporated. That’s to everyone’s benefit. But be ready if the crisis is still pending, or die.

We teach clients to plan in advance; marshal your facts; be the bearer of the bad news; define yourself, don’t let your critics define you; determine and vet your response messaging; take responsibility; always tell the truth; and try, try, try to see yourselves as the world will perceive you.

Only then can you fully prepare for the real riot — not the beer-induced kind involving 20-year-olds — that will surround you and the chaos you must manage. If your response is patched together on the fly, your chances of success markedly diminish.

Ask Grant Spanier whether he’d do it all differently if he had the second chance few get.

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About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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