Penn State PR - One Year Later
Allison Kreider is a 2012 graduate of Penn State University and current intern at Lois Paul & Partners. In this four part series – she will cover all angles of the sex scandal at Penn State from a first-person and PR perspective. From how the football team, the same football program that was at the heart of the scandal, surpassed all expectations during the 2012 season in light of a new coaching staff and shaken up starting roster, to hidden gems that can help Penn State shine as it crawls out from the darkness, there are stories to be told about how this school has responded to unprecedented public relations pressure.
A little over one year ago, I, along with 40,000-plus Penn State students, was not so patiently awaiting a hard-earned Thanksgiving break. The stress and anxiety that went into my final fall semester were different than in years past. My university had just been rocked by one of the biggest scandals in the history of academic institutions. No one ever thought that Penn State and child molestation would ever have fit in the same sentence, and yet there it was, on every front page, of every major newspaper.
A once revered football coach and community hero was now being accused of sexually abusing multiple children over a span of several years. Our administrators and current coaches were in the line of fire as accusations and cover-up theories flew about.
Everyone had something to say, but no one had the answers.
Everyday brought more details, which led to more questions, which led to more media scrutiny and attention. What was once a peaceful and picturesque walk across the Old Main lawn en route to my 8 a.m. class was now an obstacle course of dodging reporters and ducking camera lenses.
I never dreamt I’d have to defend a place that I called home and the events of those several days were exhausting for the entire Penn State community.
Everything I had learned in my “Intro to PR” class was absent from the university’s approach to handling the crisis. After days of not providing any sort of statement, the statement that finally was offered was the wrong message to send.
President Spanier offered “unconditional support” to two of the administrators who were allegedly responsible for the cover-up. By doing so, he positioned himself, and Penn State, as unaccountable and ignorant. When the university cancelled Coach Joe Paterno’s previously scheduled press conference, they said (without saying) that they weren’t ready for the truth to come out, or at least someone else's idea of the truth. By not executing a crisis communications plan that the school had months if not years to prepare, Penn State gave up the control they could’ve had.
They let the downward spiral happen. They let our reputation fall by the way-side.
Aside from that class discussion, I purposely withheld from sharing my opinion via any social media outlets or public forums during the “storm”, anticipating that I’d have a different view once the dust settled. (A unique thing to note, I actually deactivated both my Twitter and Facebook accounts for 3 weeks during/after the scandal, unable to mentally handle all the unfounded and uneducated opinions that flooded my feeds. That’s a-whole-nother blog post…).
I recently read something that resonated with me in regard to this topic and something that’s applicable to many crisis communications case studies: “Time does not heal wounds; it is what is done with the time.”
Now, one year later, what has Penn State done with its time to repair its image, recover its losses and move forward?
Contrary to the management of a corporate brand, crises such as this create different debris within an academic institution. The stakeholders extend beyond two or three parties and include the victims, their families, the students, alumni, donors, faculty, staff, athletes and in this case Pennsylvania taxpayers, as Penn State’s status as public institution grants it state appropriations.
There were, and still are, several groups of people waiting for answers, explanations, and ultimately, the truth.