Penn State debacle elevates importance of crisis planning for communications professionals

November 17, 2011

Ad Age reported yesterday that Penn State’s Board of Trustees has engaged a PR firm to provide crisis communications counsel. Last week it was reported that Joe Paterno, after his firing, hired his own public relations counsel. Too little, too late.

Arguably, the sordid Jerry Sandusky story first broke in March 2011 when Harrisburg Patriot-News reporter Sara Ganim wrote about the grand jury investigation. The mainstream media picked up on it after the grand jury report was made public earlier this month.


Now, weeks later, after public opinion has already been formed and the university has already taken numerous slings and arrows for its botched response, Penn State enlists the help that it should have had months ago.

This is a strong lesson for communications professionals on the importance of crisis planning. The time to plan a response to a crisis is long before the news goes public. Penn State had months — if not years — to prepare for the day that this story would be made public. Many of the Penn State officials who are now under a dark cloud of scrutiny were called to testify before the grand jury. It’s not like this was unexpected.

But even when crises arise unexpectedly, crisis planning is a key discipline for communications professionals, and is one of the areas where we can add significant value to our organizations. Here’s how:

It’s not crisis planning but risk management. On the heels of the financial crisis, financial institutions are stepping up their risk management efforts, brainstorming global risk scenarios that could impact their enterprise and running “what if?” analyses to enhance their game plan for these scenarios. What is this if not crisis planning? By framing crisis planning as a key risk management initiative that can preserve value when the stuff hits the fan, we more closely align with issues that are front-and-center in the mind of the C-suite. We elevate the strategic importance of the communications function. And we can access more resources — both financial and human. Crisis planning becomes a priority, and we’ve all now clearly seen what happens to an organization that doesn’t make it a priority. It’s literally a bet-the-company decision.

Don’t take an “it can’t happen here” approach. When it comes to crisis management, no scenario is out of the pale of possibility. Brainstorm the entire range of crisis scenarios, from low-likelihood/high severity to high-likelihood/low severity. Could a senior executive at your company be arrested for similar crimes to those Sandusky is accused of? It might be a low-likelihood scenario, but the impact would be significant and perhaps threaten your organization’s very existence. Plan for it.

Make it a team effort. A high-severity crisis impacts every aspect of your organization and every constituent group you serve. The communications department can’t operate in a vacuum during a crisis, so it’s unrealistic to develop a crisis plan without input from others. Build a cross-functional team that touches a range of functions across the enterprise. Align closely with your risk management department. Their expertise in scenario analysis will be invaluable as you prioritize.

The end result isn’t a binder on the bookshelf. A crisis plan is not a static document, and crisis planning is not a once-and-done project. It’s a discipline, and it’s perhaps the communications discipline where we can add the most value to our organization. Develop a crisis planning mindset and strive to continuously update and enhance the crisis plan. Identify additional crisis scenarios and game plan for them. Periodically stage role plays where the crisis plan is set in motion, and the plan and responses are tested. Refine as needed. Rinse and repeat.

Could a better response have helped Penn State preserve its reputation? I believe so. There was never an expression of sympathy for the victims or acknowledgement of harms done. The various people associated with the matter were never unified in message or delivery. Joe Paterno resigns at noon on Wednesday in a teary-eyed press conference; only to be fired hours later by the Board of Trustees. The right hand was not talking to the left. And 10 days after the story breaks, someone in the brain trust decides, “I think we need a PR firm.” Crazy.

But for communications professionals, the Penn State debacle also provides us with the opportunity to elevate our role, enhance our career opportunities, and add real value to our organizations. This is our go moment, when the importance of good PR is visible for all to see on a national stage. Seize the day.

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