When will Penn State learn to stop killing itself?

May 1, 2016
When Will Penn State Learn to Stop Killing Itself?

At this point, you gotta wonder if Penn State is doing it on purpose: killing itself with inflammatory, off-mark communications that only add gasoline to the long-simmering Sandusky fire.

This time it happens after last week’s media reporting of court documents alleging that an early Sandusky victim had told Coach Joe Paterno about the abuse as early as 1976. The documents are part of a filing by Penn State’s former insurer, which is trying to avoid paying huge claims suffered by the university as part of the settlements made to 30 victims. The documents suggest that the school settlements cover claims dating back to 1971. That timeline would mean that the university and Joe Paterno knew about Sandusky’s abuse much earlier than it contends—some 22 years earlier. Later last week, former Harrisburg Patriot-News reporter, Sara Ganim, who now works for CNN and won a Pulitzer Prize for her Sandusky coverage, reported that a man told her he was abused by Sandusky, and that he had told Paterno about the incident way back in 1971.

You would think with such powerful and damaging allegations, Penn State would tread carefully so as not to repeat its earlier flat-footed and ill-fated communications blunders at the time the Sandusky case broke in November 2011. And you would be wrong.

A statement issued by Penn State President Eric Barron shows him to be just as tone deaf as his disgraced and discharged predecessor former President Graham Spanier, who is still awaiting trial on his role in the alleged cover up. Fortunately, though, Spanier has already been enshrined in the PR Hall of Shame for his bungled mismanagement of the university’s response in 2011. Gregarious_WhenWillPennStateStopKillingItself_Image

Barron’s response fails for many of the same reasons other organizations flounder when faced with a crisis, including:

Blaming the media. Unless you are Donald Trump, don’t attack the media. They are notoriously thin-skinned and hold the ultimate tool of revenge—more bad publicity. Yet the PSU President walks right into the trap writing, “We cannot find any evidence, related to a settlement or otherwise, and that an alleged early assault was communicated to Coach Paterno. This raises considerable credibility issues as to this press report.” With that Barron goes full metal jacket against the Pulitzer Prize winning Ganim, a foolish and unnecessary gambit.

Using hyperbolic language. “I want you to know I am appalled by the rumor, innuendo and rush to judgment that has accompanied the media stories.” Really President Barron? You are appalled by innuendo? Innuendo is not nearly as appalling as the despicable acts committed by a former assistant football coach on your watch. It’s not nearly as appalling as the failure of your organization to listen to your own graduate assistant who claimed to have witnessed child abuse in the university’s showers. That’s not nearly as appalling as the mistakes that allowed these crimes to continue for years, ruining other children’s lives. All of that, my friend, is the very definition of appalling. Next time, please save your hyperbolic language for the perpetrator and not the press.

Speaking for others. “Other stories are clearly incredulous, and should be difficult for any reasonable person to believe.” Really, are you speaking for me, President Barron? After Sandusky’s conviction, I think it’s more likely that any reasonable person would believe these new allegations, given that they are reported by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and appear in court documents that your university had seen and knew about.

How Penn State could continue to undermine its own reputation is really simple. For years, they have lived in the foxhole, taking incoming and suffering under the pressure. It’s common in such situations for organizations to see themselves as the victim—under siege and ready to strike out and defend. What’s more difficult to understand is why Penn State’s outside communications professionals aren’t fighting for more level-headed responses—expressions that show empathy and humanity, and afford some hope of redemption for such a great institution.

Before the week was out, Sara Ganim had the credible tale of a Sandusky accuser who claims he was warned away by the matter by Paterno and another man way back in 1971.

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