Penn State emerging from crisis, but too many questions still linger


Former Penn State assistant football coach and convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky is in a Pennsylvania prison, caged with death-row inmates.

Other former football coaches are seen around town, running on trails, seemingly lost and still stunned by how the crisis transformed their lives, like Sandusky’s young victims.

Earlier this week, the university community hosted a three-day meeting on child abuse that featured a keynote speech by kidnapping and abuse victim Elizabeth Smart, who praised the effort.

A visit to State College last weekend, including a Communications Department seminar Friday afternoon featuring three Penn State grads who made it big in Hollywood, afforded ample opportunity to discuss why Penn State’s leadership fumbled and bumbled its public relations and crisis management over the last year. Professors, journalists and former high-ranking employees all weighed in about the scandal that cost Head Coach Joe Paterno, the university president, the AD and a vice-president their jobs and humiliated a great university.

Many of the comments continued to reflect bewilderment. As we wrote at the time, trustees and administrators had only to walk out of their offices and outside Old Main to a building 500 yards away and there knock on the doors of some of the best crisis management experts in America. Penn State graduated the pro who worked on the Tylenol poisonings. Half a dozen professors were more than qualified to help. Never happened.

The university hired and apparently fired a national public relations agency that indisputably would have given effective advice the crisis commanders just as clearly ignored. If they had, the crisis would not linger like Hurricane Sandy.

Much of the blame for this mess and the poor handling of it seems to be placed at the feet of the trustees. Their executive committee is described as an insular old boys club of big C-level egos, all of whom do business with one another. Several close observers described the board as more fitting for a country club than providing powerful leadership needed by a national research institution. The university ran itself and the trustees, many of them political appointees of the state attorney general turned governor who started the Sandusky probe, liked the free football perks and the line on their resumes.

When the Sandusky/Paterno mess landed in their laps — the outsider theory goes — these “leaders” worried far more about their day jobs than the university. They did all they could to blame others while protecting their own hides. They followed the preferred posture of CEOs everywhere and ducked and covered — and not their heads.

There’s so much anger among the alumni that hundreds of people ran for a couple of alumni seats on the board. And at Saturday night’s half-time of the game against Ohio State a great many of the 108,000 attendees booed lustily when new university President Rodney Erickson was introduced. His crime? Accepting without a peep or push back the serious NCAA sanctions levied on Penn State’s football team. In the context of this discussion, therefore, he added fuel to the PR fire and whatever messaging he’s using is an utter failure.

As this crisis enters its second year, one can only hope that an enterprising professor in the Communications Department will undertake a book project that tries to get at the issue of why such massive institutional failure occurred and why the crisis management continues to fail so expertly at Penn State, a university with a superior cadre of crisis experts.

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 http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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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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