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.
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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From a legal perspective, doesn’t your suggested version openly admit guilt in the first line? Can you add “alledged” without diminishing concern for the victims?
Thanks for your comment. I understand the basis of your concern, so let me dissect it a bit.
First, no – I don’t think there’s a way to add “alleged” without diminishing concern for the victims. The victims (and their families) will resent the hell out of their abuse being publicly questioned in that way, and their voices are the most influential in determining the media’s storylines. If you unnecessarily antagonize them, you’re going to receive even worse press.
Still, to your larger point, it might be appropriate to use the word “alleged” – if there’s reason to believe that the abuse itself might not have occured. In this case, there seems to be little question that abuse indeed took place, so I’m less concerned about hedging the statement with that word.
Mr. Spanier and his executives may indeed be nervous about their own legal culpability here, and I suspect you’re alluding to a possible defense of “Hey, we didn’t know this was a case of abuse, lest we would have reported it.” You’re right that that’s a possible legal loophole. And I suppose the “right” approach to my revised statement depends on their goal. If the goal is to keep two University executives who allegedly lied to a grand jury out of legal trouble, then using the word “alleged” in my suggested statement might be the right thing to do. If their goal is to maintain the reputation of the University and minimize the fallout from this scandal, it’s not. They can’t do both.
All of that said, this type of crisis communications is more art than science. I think you could make a complelling case to include the word “alleged” in the statement. But I think there’s more downside than upside to doing so, short of evidence that these allegatations are likely fabricated.
Thanks for weighing in,
Brad, thanks for your excellent response. I agree with you…antagonizing the victims by questioning their abuse is a dangerous strategy to employ.
I suspect this story is going to create a classic crisis communications case study.
According to NPR’s article on this case, Paterno was informed about the abuse. And yet, he’s not been formally charged like his two colleagues. Penn State better be prepared to answer some tough questions on this point.
You obviously asked a terrific question, because I haven’t been able to stop thinkng about it for the past half hour!
I guess I’d make one final point: The most important part of my revised statement is the idea that Mr. Spanier should shift his response to be more about the victims, and less about an unequivocal defense of his executives. If he achieves that, I’m happy – regardless of whether or not he inserts the word “alleged.”
Thanks very much for reading and commenting. Please don’t be a stranger.
The university president offering his full support of Curley and Schultz will come back to haunt him, as it should. And this is from a university which I assume has a communications program with public relations and media courses. They have some serious problems and they can’t even see it.
Great post Brad, and I thought your response was perfect. A statement like that shows a high degree of empathy for the victims, regardless of who was at fault for the crime. The original statement is very dismissive of the victims. And as others have noted, by offering such unconditional support for the staff, he’s basically putting his own reputation and that of the university on the line, needlessly. If the staff comes out clean, maybe the university can salvage something of its reuptation in the short term. Maybe. But if they get implicated in a cover up, he’s personally sunk, and it will take the university a decade or more (at least) to recover public trust. Amazing how an opening press statement can really set the tone in crisis communications, toward further PR disaster or recovery.
The statement released by Paterno is equally distressing: http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2011/11/joe_paterno_issues_statement_a.html
The message here (which I’m sure will be echoed in the defense strategy) appears to be “we are victims, too,” which is heartless, insulting to the public and the real victims and extremely hard to believe. PSU needs to hire outside PR counsel immediately. It is obvious that the internal people are too close to the story to provide objective and effective counsel. They’ve taken a truly horrific situation and actually made it worse.