Penn State’s ongoing battle with crisis communication
Last fall when news broke of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the entire nation wondered how Penn State would handle the crisis. The child abuse fiasco is a public relations disaster that Penn State will surely be dealing with for years and years to come. So, what should Penn State do?
The day after Sandusky was arrested and charged with 40 counts of sexual abuse of eight young boys over a 15-year period, Penn State University’s Board of Trustees enlisted Omnicom Group agency Ketchum for crisis communications counsel.
Two days later, the firm assisted the school with a press conference during which the vice chairman announced that Joe Paterno (JoePa to most), as well as university President Graham Spanier were stepping down.
In January, Penn State President Rodney Erickson said the university was no longer working with Ketchum PR. Erickson told the Faculty Senate that “the university had used Ketchum as a crisis coordination firm primarily in November, and it had been decided after the holiday break that the university had moved to a point where that company’s help was no longer needed.”
Oh, that’s it? Penn State’s Board of Trustees think it’s all over because the story is not on the front page anymore?
According to PRDaily, the two firms “will support the school in upcoming litigation related to the Sandusky crisis and work to foster greater transparency among Penn State Stakeholders.”
In my opinion, the two firms have their work cut out for them. I think it was smart to not only hire Edelman – which has a proven track record for crisis communication campaigns across the globe – and a local firm to handle the campaign.
A quick tangent – according to The Morning Call, the new yearlong contract with the two firms will cost $2.5 million. Also, Penn State has already retained at least 12 other firms at the cost of $7.6 million to provide communications and legal assistance. Where is this money coming from – tuition money? The new strategy should consist of transparency and letting the public know just where the BOT is pulling funds.
What else should be in the new strategy to regain trust and offer great transparency? Is forthrightness enough?
Traditional rebranding may not be enough, considering children are involved and so much wrongdoing has occurred on so many levels at the university. Penn State lost the public’s trust. It’ll be a long process to earn it back.
The first thing I learned about crisis communication was concern for the victims, their families and communities. Penn State should donate copious amounts of money to child abuse charities, or even start their own. It should implement a no tolerance policy when it comes to any sort of misbehavior, empowering its faculty and staff to do the right thing – not simply tell someone else and consider the situation handled. College funds could be set up in the names of those victims who have not yet attended a university. Media training will probably be implemented to faculty, staff and coached for future situations. Penn State needs to somehow prove that it is a safe, stable environment that is suitable for everyone.
There is so much work to be done for Penn State, but it seems to be on the right path. This subject will surely be discussed and studied for many more years. What do you think Penn State should do?
by Sarah Funderburk