Penn State PR - One Year Later Part III
Allison Kreider is a 2012 graduate of Penn State University and current intern at Lois Paul & Partners. This is the third part of a four-part series covering the many angles of the sex scandal at Penn State from a first-person account 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.
This year, Penn State’s Nittany Lions were the biggest underdogs of the 2012 college football season. The odds were against us (as an alumni, I can say that!) on all fronts. Some of our best starters transferred to other schools, our coaching staff was full of new faces with new playbooks and before the first kick-off at Beaver Stadium, both fans and players knew that no bowl game was in the future, regardless of the team’s record.
When the NCAA dropped sanctions on Penn State’s football program, which included a $60 million fine, four-year absence from bowl games, elimination of 10 scholarships from the program for four years, and 13 years’ worth of victories being erased from the record books, the Penn State community, and arguably the world, was shocked.
These sanctions were unprecedented and sent a message that irresponsible behavior at the leadership level would not go without punishment, even if that punishment hit at the student-athlete level. Did the future players who will now be without scholarships to Penn State partake in hiding information about child abuse? Were former players who strived to get those victories into the record books ignorant to a moral compass? The NCAA may have created some of its own PR issues with these sanctions, but this was a turning point in the PR path Penn State was following.
When several members of the football team faced the media in July 2012 in response to the sanctions; fans, opponents and critics saw a different side of the Penn State brand. That statement, made by the players themselves, did more to heal the reputation wounds than any efforts made by the university itself. The team stood as men, ready to tackle the adversity that was ahead. From a public relations perspective, I couldn’t have been more impressed. There was no negativity, no complaining, no “this isn’t fair” – it was simply, we are men, we will work hard, and we will show you what we’re capable of.
There were ups and downs throughout the season. Losing the first two games was not what the Lions had hoped for. When kicker Sam Ficken missed four field goals and an extra point to lose to Virginia by one point, things didn’t look good for the rest of the season. But that’s not how this team was going to face adversity. They went on to lose only two more games and finish the season with an 8-4 record, beating the likes of Purdue and Wisconsin, both Big Ten rivals.
Dark clouds fell upon Happy Valley again when senior linebacker Mike Mauti was carted off the field in the first quarter of the Indiana game with a knee injury. Mauti was unable to return for the remainder of the season, which would have been his last game of the 2012 campaign. Mauti was undoubtedly the leader of the 2012 Nittany Lions, the glue that held the team together, as he deflected critics and nay-sayers, and focused on what was at hand -- winning football games.
Many public relations lessons can be learned from the 2012 Penn State football team, and applied in various situations. Most importantly, in the face of adversity, show who you really are. When critics or customers have bad things to say, don’t hide in the shadows, admit your weakness and show your strengths. Additionally, focus on the task at hand. When pitching to a client, don’t worry if you’re the perceived underdog as compared to competing agencies – go in there and “win the game.” And lastly, be strong in your messaging. When Mauti stated that “one man did not build this program, one man sure as hell will not tear it down,” it somewhat “branded” the season, it sent the message.
We’ll see what’s in store for the Lions in the years to come. With Bill O’Brien assuring his commitment to the program, I sense that we’re in the hands of a loyal leader, one who will show the world who WE ARE. Plus, as the former offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, Coach O’Brien’s Boston-brawn is sure to beef up the program and lead us into a new era.