PR

I hate Penn State. There I said it. I used to have a button that said that and wore it to every Pitt-Penn State game when I was an undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh. We called what transpired in so-called Happy Valley a cult. Little did we know.

My hatred back then – in the late 1970s until graduation in 1981 – was rooted in the football rivalry and the holier than thou attitude of the Penn State football program and its “saintly” coach Joe Paterno – who said he didn’t want to leave the world of college football to (then Pitt coach) the Jackie Sherrills of the world.

But he was okay to leave it to the Jerry Sanduskys and yes, Joe Paternos of the world. While we will never know how much Joe knew, when he knew it and what he did or didn’t do about it – or to cover it up – one thing is sure. Penn State is a continuing case study in what to do wrong when it comes to public relations.

PR professors for decades to come will have more material than they know what to do with when discussing crisis communications and Penn State. The ongoing failures in this realm are so breathtakingly bad that I think the PR world has just accepted that they are going to screw it up and not even care. Maybe that’s because the school continues to recruit students at a record pace, despite these failures. But at what point do you care enough about your reputation to do things the right way?

If the current Penn State president is any guide in this regard, the answer to that question is never.

Now I hate Penn State on the football field, but even I can’t sit on the sideline and watch them make every mistake in the book. As I read the letter that Eric Barron wrote to the Penn State community – before it was even dissected in the media – I was screaming at my screen – do you NOT have any good PR advisors? I know that Penn State has a robust internal PR staff and have read that the university has paid millions of dollars to outside counsel, so I can only assume that the president chose to ignore all their advice. Otherwise, that letter never would have been written.

It appeals to the fringe crazies, like those who genuflected on Paterno’s lawn after his death and are consumed with the “football is life” mentality. I know that there are Penn State graduates who are regular people who see this situation for what it is and don’t need to be told that it’s all the media. So in the interest of future communications, I offer the following free advice to Mr. Barron.

  1. Consider your audience – When you publish a letter on the Internet, it is not going to be read by just the fringe crazies you are trying to placate. It is read by the world and you will be (rightly) lambasted for your brazen, ignorant, insensitive approach. You want to say this stuff to folks one-on-one at a cocktail party, go for it. But don’t ever put it in writing again.
  2. When you have a reputation for looking the other way at campus sex crimes, you might want to consider your approach to a horrible, volatile, disgusting episode in your current university’s past. This president had some incidents at his former place of employment – Florida State – that call into question how seriously he takes sex crimes.
  3. It’s almost not fair to critique the actual letter because it is so awful from start to finish. But this passage demands extra attention as perhaps the most heinous thing ever written by a college president: “I can think of few crimes as heinous as the sexual assault of a child. We are, as individuals and as an institution, appalled by Sandusky’s actions, and unified in our commitment to prevention, treatment and education….Unfortunately, we can’t control the 24/7 news cycle, and the tendency of some individuals in social media and the blogosphere to rush to judgment. But I have had enough of the continued trial of the institution in various media.”  Which reads like: “Sexual assault is bad, but the media is worse.”
  1. Which brings me to number four. Don’t blame the media. Ever. The news media can be annoying, it can be biased and it can be a lot of things. But the media didn’t do the crime, whatever it is. In this case, it’s the most horrible crime imaginable and it was a trusted member of the university’s staff who committed the crime. And evidence continues to point to others on staff who covered for this monster. Those are the facts.
  2. If you think the media has been tough on Penn State to date, just look out. You basically screamed, “I’m ready for more” by indicting the news media as the real culprit here. I suggest you ready yourself for more media “attacks” and find a more conciliatory tone or else this conversation will continue forever.
  3. If you are paying for a PR staff and outside counsel and you are not listening to them, you have two choices. Circle the wagons, have a come to Jesus meeting and start listening. Or stop wasting your money on outside counsel if you aren’t going to listen anyway. If you are paying for these folks and they are advising you that this letter was a good idea, fire them all now.

Yes I hate Penn State on the football field. But this university is a part of the fabric of the place where I live and choose to do business. I have many friends who are Penn State grads and I know that they aren’t cult members – well most of them – but it’s high time Penn State took responsibility, cleaned up its act and stopped defending monsters who have sullied their reputation to a point where they have become a national joke. Shame on you President Barron for feeding into that joke.