I apologize for piling on to this mega-news story concerning the Penn State University child sexual molestation case, but I think there are some legitimate Crisis Management and Crisis Response issues that warrant discussion.
First and foremost, I wish to say that my heart bleeds for those victims involved in this case. I cannot imagine the horrors that these young men and their families suffered, and will continue to suffer again through the legal process and media scrutiny (which often includes invasive and insensitive tactics). It is especially disturbing to realize that so many of the victims could have been spared this status had the individuals who became aware of these crimes come forward with what they saw and/or were made aware of. I have many, many strong and personal feelings about this situation, but will try to limit this blog to the Crisis Management and Crisis Response aspects of the story.
I do not have the stomach or interest to relay the details of this story in this blog. If you want to know the facts, you can read the Grand Jury Report concerning the charges made. I warn you however, this report contains graphic and disturbing language in describing the events under investigation. I will leave it up to you to decide the culpability and responsibilities of the individuals involved.
One of the criteria used to measure the importance of a business process in the Business Impact Analysis is the impact on branding. Without a doubt, the Penn State University brand – and, I mean much more than the football program brand, has been and continues to be severely damaged by this unfolding story. In my opinion, the immediate responses by the University President, Graham Spanier and Head Football Coach, Joe Paterno has done nothing to help protect their brand and, quite possibly, has contributed to further damage.
Even when your Crisis Response objective is to try to protect the image of your organization, I think it is important not to have your communications be so blatantly obvious that that is your intent. I think it is important that each communiqué and statement address certain priorities:
- Your first concern is with the health and status of any and all alleged victims that might have been injured or harmed.
- You need to acknowledge that there are issues which demand your attention and you are determined to cooperate with the authorities, get the facts right and get to the bottom of the situation.
- You are determined to do whatever it takes to ensure there are policies and procedures in place to avoid a situation like this from reoccurring.
You can achieve all of this without admitting guilt and while remaining confident that your employees handled the situation properly and effectively.
If your first statements ignore that there might be victims involved; and, just relay a blind confidence and support of all involved, in my opinion, you are doing nothing to gain the confidence of the public at large that you are concerned about the situation and/or taking it seriously enough.
I think Spanier’s and Paterno’s initial responses, although full of nice legal posturing, fell short of being sympathetic or empathetic to the victims – 12 year old and younger boys – and were just posturing to help protect the possible culpability of the University and University officials.
Furthermore, I think Penn State has been too slow in doing anything other than issuing poorly constructed statements. The text book case of how to handle Public Relations Crises was the Tylenol incident in 1982. The company responsible for Tylenol took quick and immediate action to remove all pills from store’s shelves regardless of the financial impact and without waiting for more studies and more proof that there might be a problem. Their quick and immediate action which conveyed a concern for potential harm to other customers won them great favor in the public eye. These steps had a devastating impact on the financial standing of the company, adding huge costs and destroying millions of dollars of inventory and lost revenue. But, the branding was saved and the future standing of this company and this product was protected.
Unfortunately, it is too late for many individuals to take quick and immediate action preventing future victims of these crimes, but, the University is still in position to remove the tainted pills from its shelves to help protect the brand of their organization. They seem reluctant to take these actions.
The next thing Penn State needs to do in their Crisis Management program is to prepare themselves for the worse. They need to start projecting what the next steps are and what the next set of crises resulting from this situation might be. I can anticipate that there will be a slew of civil lawsuits resulting from this situation. Any and all victims that were victimized after individuals within the Penn State system were made aware of what the Graduate Assistant saw in the showers have a potential case against the individuals and the University. Once money gets involved, other victims, real and bogus, unfortunately, will start coming out of the woodwork. I am reminded of the scene from the movie “Jaws” where the mother walks up to and slaps Brody because she became aware he knew there was a shark problem before her boy was killed by the shark. Penn State better be ready, there is going to be a line of families ready to slap them.
I am sure that Penn State has a reserve of monies in their budget to handle legal problems and settlements. They are going to need to increase that amount a hundred-fold. Once Pennsylvania tax-payers start to realize their tax dollars are being funneled to help pay for this problem – more public relations issues will result.
I think Penn State needs to recognize that as bad as things are today; this is just the tip of the iceberg that has struck the Titanic that is PSU. This ship is indeed too big to sink – but, the damages that lie beneath the surface of the water are bigger than they may realize.
My suggestion in all of this – don’t try to make us feel like you are the victim. There are a handful, and possibly more, young boys who have and will continue to suffer much more than you ever will. Red flags were being flown all over the place and simply ignored by those who should have known and done better.