AP and Courier-Post Penn State stories offer excellent ‘crisis communication advice’ — PLUS a late add

[To comment: larry@larrylitwin.com]

Tell it first, tell it fast, tell it all, tell it yourself. Penn State’s latent responses and passive approach to its horrendous scandal should be a lesson to every organization — no matter how small or large the crisis.

Here is advice from an Associated Press story that hit the wire on July 14, 2012 under Bree Fowler’s byline and from a July 13, 2012 story in the Courier-Post under Joe Cooney’s byline. Once you read those reactions, there is a quote from the July 18, 2012 The Inquirer. It comes from Penn State president Rodney Erickson. It’s what should have been said first. Please keep reading.


Finally Penn State says something:

“Our hearts remain heavy and we are deeply ashamed,” Trustee Ken Frazier said in a statement.

As painful as this was — and it was a body blow of mass proportions — it was probably the best thing they could do,” says Peter Shankman, a vice president at the public relations firm Vocus Inc. “By issuing the report they’re doing what they haven’t in 15 years. People can’t start to heal until they start doing the right thing.”

“Penn State needs to take responsibility, apologize, be honest and show compassion,” says Elizabeth Lampert, who runs her own PR firm in Alamo, Calif. “With those herculean tasks accomplished, they can begin to rebuild, but this scandal will never be ‘behind’ them.”

Stan Steinreich, CEO of Steinreich Communications Group in Fort Lee, Bergen County, says that in situations like this, it’s important to tell the truth, which is what Penn State officials should have done instead of initially attempting a cover-up

“This will be studied for a long time by those in the industry as one of the worst PR catastrophes of all time, in terms of spiraling out of control,” Steinreich says. “I think that there is always a time where a corporation or an individual has to stand up and take the fire. Continuing to circle the wagons like Penn State (did) doesn’t help.”

Mark Conrad, a law and ethics professor at Fordham University in New York, says university officials need to formulate a plan that sets forth sweeping changes, including stronger controls over the university’s athletic programs, especially football.

And in order to restore trust, a better system needs to be created for reporting violations, Conrad believes.

Gene Grabowski, executive vice president of Levick Strategic Communications, a Washington, D.C.-based crisis communications firm that has advised universities and Fortune 100 companies, says Penn State’s plan must show a commitment to change, even if that inflicts pain on Penn Staters who feel they’ve done nothing wrong.

“It’s not about punishing the guilty at this point,” Grabowski says. “It’s about demonstrating a commitment to a new way of doing business that the university now has to do. And some sacrifice must be made, and sometimes the innocent suffer. There must be a sacrificial lamb here.”

“It is…reasonable to conclude that in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity the most powerful leaders at Penn State University…repeatedly concealed facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities, the board of trustees, the Penn State community and the public at large,” said former FBI director Louis Freeh in his 267-page report.

“The ‘bad publicity’ comment goes right to my inner core as a Penn State alum and one who works in the [public relations] field,” said Jeff Jubelirer, a crisis management expert in Philadelphia.

“It’s just so sad. If they had not worried about the publicity and dealt with the problem right away, this tragedy could have been averted.

“There were consistent signs that (Sandusky) was trouble, and the top brass didn’t deal with it aggressively,” added Jubelirer. “The fact that they didn’t deal with the situation is mind-blowing.”


or not the tarnish can ever be erased is hard to determine, said Rowan University’s Larry Litwin, an associate professor of public relations.

“The entire situation is appalling,” said Litwin, author of a book on crisis management.

“There is a difference between being unethical and breaking the law,” said Litwin, noting that Penn State failed to adhere to The Clery Act, a 1990 law that requires public disclosure of crimes on American campuses.

“Penn State did both! They will forever be known as the university that covered up this horrendous crime. I truly believe their reputation is years and years away from being repaired — if it can ever be repaired.”

Both Jubelirer and Litwin added

that in the midst of all scandal there might be something good to come from it.

“If there is any silver lining in this very dark cloud, it is that it’s hoped now that any organization that deals with children should know what to do. I hope they will look for the warning signs and take action.

“That might be the only good news of this sordid affair.”

Now that President Erickson quote: “This is arguably one of the worst scandals that a university could have to deal with,” he said. “We will have to deal with it at the outset. We’ll have to take responsibility, be accountable to put the appropriate changes into place, and then we’ll have to demonstrate by our actions every day that we are the world-class university that we’ve long been.” [To comment: larry@larrylitwin.com]

At Old Main, Penn State president Rodney Erickson addresses how the campus will move forward in the fall.

Dr. Erickson            [To comment: larry@larrylitwin.com]