This past weekend, former Penn State defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky was arrested for child molestation. Whoa. The news hit the Penn State, sports and college community hard. It didn’t, however, come as a shock to at least three people: Tim Curley, Gary Schultz and Joe Paterno.
Each of them have known about Sandusky’s actions since 2002.
I could ramble on and on about their failures but that’s not the purpose of this post. I’m interested in the public relations implications of this crisis–specifically, Penn State’s communications efforts following the news of Sandusky’s arrest.
After Sandusky’s arrest became public, Penn State President Graham Spanier released the following statement:
“The allegations about a former coach are troubling, and it is appropriate that they be investigated thoroughly. Protecting children requires the utmost vigilance.
“With regard to the other presentments, I wish to say that Tim Curley and Gary Schultz have my unconditional support. I have known and worked daily with Tim and Gary for more than 16 years. I have complete confidence in how they have handled the allegations about a former University employee.
“Tim Curley and Gary Schultz operate at the highest levels of honesty, integrity and compassion. I am confident the record will show that these charges are groundless and that they conducted themselves professionally and appropriately.”
Here are my issues with Spanier’s comments.
1. Spanier dedicated two sentences to the primary issue at hand: a former member of the Penn State coaching staff is an alleged child molester. Child molestation is no petty crime. Spanier brushed it off and left me thinking, if protecting children’s safety requires vigilance, what are you going to do about it? Does that mean you and the Penn State community support the police officials and the prosecutor in their investigation process? Don’t leave me hanging Spanier, I need more than a snobby statement that says you support protecting children.
2. Spanier dedicated two sentences to the real issue and two paragraphs to defending two individuals who allegedly covered up a heinous crime (a secondary issue). It’s great that you’ve known them for almost two decades, but aligning yourself so passionately with individuals who may have obstructed justice doesn’t look good for you or the university in the long run. Furthermore, Spanier saying he is “confident the record will show that these charges are groundless and that they conducted themselves professionally and appropriately,” may prove to be words he’ll have to swallow in the future.
Following the release of this insensitive, yet overly sensitive statement, Penn State scheduled a press conference to address the situation, only to cancel it an hour before it was scheduled to begin. My issue with that move? When you fail to speak, the media will speak for you.
Luckily, for Penn State, the communications team started to catch on to what should be done in a crisis and cleaned up their growing mess with more sensible strategies and tactics.
They started by releasing the following statement:
Statement by The Pennsylvania State University Board of Trustees
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
The Board of Trustees of The Pennsylvania State University is outraged by the horrifying details contained in the Grand Jury Report. As parents, alumni and members of the Penn State Community, our hearts go out to all of those impacted by these terrible events, especially the tragedies involving children and their families. We cannot begin to express the combination of sorrow and anger that we feel about the allegations surrounding Jerry Sandusky. We hear those of you who feel betrayed and we want to assure all of you that the Board will take swift, decisive action.
At its regular meeting on Friday, November 11, 2011, the Board will appoint a Special Committee, members of which are currently being identified, to undertake a full and complete investigation of the circumstances that gave rise to the Grand Jury Report. This Special Committee will be commissioned to determine what failures occurred, who is responsible and what measures are necessary to insure that this never happens at our University again and that those responsible are held fully accountable. The Special Committee will have whatever resources are necessary to thoroughly fulfill its charge, including independent counsel and investigative teams, and there will be no restrictions placed on its scope or activities. Upon the completion of this investigation, a complete report will be presented at a future public session of the Board of Trustees.
Penn State has always strived for honesty, integrity and the highest moral standards in all of its programs. We will not tolerate any violation of these principles. We educate over 95,000 students every year and we take this responsibility very seriously. We are dedicated to protecting those who are placed in our care. We promise you that we are committed to restoring public trust in the University.
Here’s what they did right:
1. They used words to convey emotion. “Outraged”, “horrifying”, “tragedies”, “terrible”, “anger” — these are words that describe how people everywhere are feeling, and to know that the university also feels this way is comforting and empathetic. In the statement released by Spanier, we all thought he didn’t care.
2. They made it known that swift action would be taken. Those keeping up with the story knew something would happen, we just didn’t know when. Now we know, Penn State is taking this ordeal seriously and wants to start making changes, for the better, immediately.
3. They released the statement within 48 hours. While cancelling the press conference wasn’t the best idea, releasing this statement so soon shows that they are concerned with the issue and more action and information is to come.
In addition to this on-the-mark statement, the university has fired Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier (Curley is on administrative leave, Schultz stepped down). Actions that some may call harsh, but it was necessary. It shows that the board’s statement wasn’t just talk, but instead, words that would be followed by action that would show support to the victims and their families–because at the end of the day, that’s who this is really all about.