Penn State’s Crisis Communications Still Off-Key

Penn State University has been embroiled in a major reputational crisis since November, when allegations emerged that former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky engaged in numerous acts of child rape.

The past few days have brought the scandal back into the headlines for two reasons: First, former head coach Joe Paterno granted his first interview, and second, Penn State’s new president made a stunningly tone-deaf statement. 

1. Joe Paterno’s First Interview: Mr. Paterno gave his first interview since being dismissed to the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins. Lung cancer, Jenkins wrote, “has robbed [Paterno] of the breath to say all that he wants to about the scandal he still struggles to comprehend.”

Mr. Paterno claims ignorance, saying this about the moment when Assistant Coach Mike McQueary reported the incident involving Jerry Sandusky to him:

“You know, he didn’t want to get specific,” Paterno said. “And to be frank with you I don’t know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man. So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it.”


Joe Paterno speaks to Sally Jenkins. Photo Credit: The Washington Post

Which leads to a question: Is Joe Paterno intentionally trying to appear ignorant as a deliberate reputation management strategy? Sally Jenkins admitted that she, “certainly didn’t walk away from the interview satisfied,” and questioned whether he was telling her the entire truth.

At best, Mr. Paterno comes off as an aloof manager from a different generation who wasn’t aware of things he should have been aware of and who failed to establish a culture in which people could tell him the blunt truths he needed to hear.

In fairness, Mr. Paterno didn’t coordinate his interview with Penn State, so they shouldn’t be blamed for his interview – but the school holds full responsibility for the next example.

2. Penn State President Rodney Erickson Blows It: Last Thursday, Penn State’s new president told alumni during a town hall meeting that:

“It grieves me very much when I hear people say ‘the Penn State scandal.’ This is not Penn State. This is ‘the Sandusky scandal.’ We’re not going to let what one individual did destroy the reputation of this university.”

Mr. Erickson seems to believe he can recast the Penn State scandal as one restricted to the actions of one man. But he seems to be willfully ignoring the findings of Pennsylvania’s Attorney General, who found that two top University officials had committed perjury and failed to report suspected child abuse. By trying to minimize the scope of the scandal, Mr. Erickson violated one of the seven key rules of crisis management.

Penn State President Rodney Erickson. Photo Credit: Penn State University

His statement also undercut a November pledge by Penn States’ Trustees, which promised that a:

“Special Committee will be commissioned to determine what failures occurred, who is responsible and what measures are necessary to insure that this never happens at our University again and that those responsible are held fully accountable.”

So much for “those who are responsible.” If this is a “Sandusky” scandal in which “one individual” destroyed “the reputation of this university,” why would the Trustees need to investigate any other people or institutional failures?

The school can’t have it both ways. Either it will investigate this scandal with a wide net that may implicate numerous university staffers, or it’s going to try to minimize the scandal by pinning it solely on one person. Mr. Erickson’s statement makes it appear they’re leaning toward option two.

If I’m wrong and they’re truly leaning toward a full investigation, Mr. Erickson should forever banish that tone-deaf statement from his lexicon.

Have the best of the blog delivered to your inbox twice per month! Enter your name in the box below.