Former FBI Director Louis Freeh’s blistering report released today about the Penn State sex abuse scandal is the first step in emerging from a crisis that might take a decade or more to put to rest.
Freeh’s findings confirm the worst about this great university’s leaders, especially its president and its late, great football coach, Joe Paterno. The gut punch is that Paterno’s program recruited cleanly, won games, and graduated more players than almost all others in Division I. And he and Penn State received deserved praise for those achievements.
But we now learn that St. Joe had a blind spot; JoePa, the man who served as a father figure for legions and generations of Penn State graduates, failed children. Fourteen years passed from when he and others should have reported former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, left below, to police. Instead, while Sandusky continued to sexually abuse young boys, Paterno apparently put his football program and his personal status first.
The moral failing and hypocrisy is stunning. What good is a program that graduates the fastest, strongest and smartest, but fails to protect the weakest and most vulnerable. As a crisis, only the extensive abuse of children by Catholic priests over decades parallels this one.
In terms of emerging from the crisis, the first step is the hardest, but the report provides it.
The lessons, from a public relations and crisis management viewpoint, could fill, and probably will, half a dozen courses at communications schools across the nation. Penn State has one of the best. I’ve spoken to classes there. Any one of a dozen professors could have told the administration what to do 14 years ago, had those administrators asked and acted.
What emerged was that officials worried about the hit the university would have taken back then if they’d gone public with Sandusky’s crimes. That hit multiplied a thousand fold by waiting and covering up.
In an interview I did this morning on WBEN radio in Buffalo, News Director Steve Cichon asked why logic and honestly don’t prevail at the pivotal point to stop a cover up before it starts? It seems so clear to everyone now what should have been done. But it wasn’t. By moral, honest leaders. What would we do?
Fear and ego play a role. Prominent leaders fear for their jobs. They worry about the negative impact on budget and annual giving and football recruiting. And they think they are above it all. In some ways they were, too; it took 14 years before right triumphed over might.
If they’d outed Sandusky in 1998, the hit would have hurt Penn State’s reputation; some heads would have rolled. By waiting, its leaders devastated that reputation, and twice as many heads have rolled and will roll. It’s a shame, especially for the victims who could have been saved from Sandusky, but instead were instead sacrificed to his proclivities on the altar of presidential and coaching fears and egos.
This is an immense tragedy, on so many levels. Yet the simple rules apply. Be transparent. Tell the truth. Take your hits. Admit your mistakes. Apologize. Fix the problem and make the organization stronger.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.