Penn State’s Abuse Scandal: Bad Crisis Communications

There’s little more awful than the sexual abuse of a child.

On Saturday, former Penn State Defensive Coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on charges of abusing eight minors between 1994 and 2009. The allegations range from inappropriate touching to oral and anal sex with minors (rape would be a more accurate description).

Here’s where it gets even more disgusting. Tim Curley, Penn State’s athletic director, and Gary Schultz, vice president for finance and business, were allegedly told about a specific case of abuse by a graduate student who had seen Mr. Sandusky with a ten-year-old child in a team locker room shower.

Instead of notifying the police, which is required by Pennsylvania law, they chose to remain silent. Both men have been charged with perjury for allegedly lying to a grand jury.

Former Penn State Coach Jerry Sandusky, charged with sexually abusing eight boys

Pennsylvania’s Attorney General, Linda Kelly, didn’t mince words in her statement, saying:

”The failure of top university officials to act on reports of Sandusky’s alleged sexual misconduct, even after it was reported to them in graphic detail by an eyewitness, allowed a predator to walk free for years — continuing to target new victims. Equally disturbing is the lack of action and apparent lack of concern among those same officials, and others who received information about this case, who either avoided asking difficult questions or chose to look the other way.”

So how did Penn State President Graham Spanier respond to all of this? With a statement unequivocally backing Mr. Curley and Mr. Schultz:

“The allegations about a former coach are troubling, and it is appropriate that they be investigated thoroughly. Protecting children requires the utmost vigilance.

With regard to the other presentments, I wish to say that Tim Curley and Gary Schultz have my unconditional support. I have known and worked daily with Tim and Gary for more than 16 years. I have complete confidence in how they have handled the allegations about a former University employee.

Tim Curley and Gary Schultz operate at the highest levels of honesty, integrity and compassion. I am confident the record will show that these charges are groundless and that they conducted themselves professionally and appropriately.”

Note how Mr. Spanier used distancing language in the first paragraph when speaking about the allegations of child sexual abuse, but completely personal language in paragraphs two and three when defending his executives. That linguistic cue clearly communicates what his main concerns are – his two “friends,” not eight minors who were allegedly sexual abused by a powerful football coach.

Note, also, that the accusations of covering up child abuse are described coldly as “presentments.” Not exactly a guy who is expressing genuine concern over eight boys who may well be affected by the acts of abuse for the rest of their lives.

From a P.R. perspective, he has aligned himself (and, by extension, the University) with the “bad guys” instead of demonstrating to the public that he “gets it.” If his approach to crisis management doesn’t change course quickly, I’d be surprised if he is still at Penn State a couple of years from now.

In fairness, I understand why Mr. Spanier didn’t want to sell his two top executives down the river until the two men had a full hearing. That’s fair enough. But his statement needed to prioritize the victims, not his cronies.

His statement should have said something much closer to this:

“I am horrified to learn about the sexual abuse of eight minors. As a parent, I understand just how sacred a responsibility we all have to keep children safe. We will cooperate fully with the investigation and do everything possible to make sure this never happens again.

As for Mr. Curley and Mr. Schultz, I would ask everyone to wait until the facts of the case have fully emerged before forming a judgment.”

UPDATE: Monday, November 7, 2011, 8:09am: Tim Curley has requested to be placed on administrative leave. Gary Schultz has stepped down and retired.

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