Penn State: Then, Now and Football Throughout
Allison Kreider is a 2012 graduate of Penn State University and current intern at Lois Paul & Partners. This is the second part of a four part series covering the many 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.
When it rained on Penn State in the fall of 2011, it poured. Allegations were coming from the left and right, accusing current and former coaches of the school's vaunted and legendary football team, administrators, and even janitorial staff of playing a role in “the” scandal. The media was relentless and without answers to their questions, they were left to their own devices of creating and selling the story. But why? Why were they left without answers to their questions?
This storm was brewing long before it appeared on the national media's radar. The grand jury investigation occurred in the summer of 2011, while claims of the sexual abuse of children by PSU assistant coach Jerry Sandusky had been filed as far back as 2002. How could the university and its board of trustees have been aware of this crisis yet appear to be as shocked as the rest of the public? How is something so monumental and so detrimental swept under the rug and left off the immediate agenda? Days went by before an official statement was made, one of many missteps Penn State made along the way.
Penn State College of Communications faculty member, and former professor of mine, Steve Manuel, lectures on this and many other PR principles to his students each semester. When he was interviewed by USA Today in the days following the media storm in Happy Valley he was quoted saying, "the Golden Rule of public relations is you have to get something out in the first 60 minutes […] and mentioning the victims always comes first. Bad news doesn't get better with time. When you cede the message to (critics or adversaries), you lose the battle."
It seemed as though the clouds may never part and Happy Valley would never see sunlight again. Much work had to be done to repair the school's image and it seemed as though few knew where to begin. However, Happy Valley is a place where most things come back to the same starting point, football.
The first home game to occur after the scandal broke, and the first home game in 40 years without Joe Paterno as head coach (as he was relieved of his duties via phone call by the board of trustees), was deemed a “blue-out” to honor child abuse awareness. There, donations were collected and approximately $47,000 was raised to benefit Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. Chills were sent down everyone’s spines when the team emerged from the tunnel in their nameless jerseys with their arms linked and faces stoic – they sent the message that a faulty administration ceded. Players and coaches from both teams participated in a pre-game prayer, and with that a message was sent that we, students and players alike, were not going to stand for the scrutiny.
Just as the dust began to settle, when we thought it couldn't get worse, it did. News broke of Coach Paterno’s diagnosis of lung cancer and the black cloud returned. Just two short months after being diagnosed, Joe Paterno passed away at the age of 85 - some think of lung cancer and some think of a broken heart. Fortunately, Joe had a chance to share his story with the world before his opportunity was gone. His interview with Sally Jenkins was published in The Washington Post on Jan. 14, 2012, just eight days before his passing.
The loss was immense. It wasn’t losing a football coach; it was like losing a grandfather. Penn State lost a man who gave so much of his life (and his livelihood for that matter) back to our school and left it better than he found it. In addition to his football legacy, leadership development programs, scholarship programs, a library, a spiritual center, even an ice-cream flavor at the famed Berkey Creamery (Peachy Paterno, a must-try!) are etched with the Paterno name. He helped the university build a reputation for itself that everyone under its wings could be proud to be a part of. He undoubtedly helped manage the Penn State brand.
I was lucky enough to attend Joe Pa’s memorial service held at the Bryce Jordan Center, Penn State’s basketball stadium. After watching football alumni, academic deans, Nike’s Phil Knight and Joe’s son, Jay, take to the stage to share their memories and defend coach’s name, there was not a dry eye in the house. It was what our school needed in such dire times and as unfortunate as it was, it provided some closure and peace to both the Paterno and Penn State families.
A candle-light vigil. A blue-out. A memorial service. Good places to start, but they weren’t enough. It wasn’t that simple. We needed the administration to step-up and be the leaders they claimed they were. We needed real answers to the hard questions. Not just for ourselves, but for the world. So that the world could see what Penn State was really about. While the loss of Coach Paterno and lack of leadership were defining moments in Penn State history, we couldn’t let it define us, and if our leaders weren’t going to lead, we had to take matters into our own hands.