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Experts: Early PR stumbles hurt Penn State

| Friday, Jan. 20, 2012

Missteps by leaders at Penn State University continue to worsen the impact of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse allegations on their tarnished institution, communication managers say.

A lack of planning hamstrung their response to the grand jury presentment in November of charges against Sandusky, who is accused of sex assaults on 10 boys over a 15-year period, and poor oversight left the school flat-footed in the crucial hours after the former assistant football coach's arrest, several experts told the Tribune-Review.

Events outside their control, such as student rioting over the firing of longtime head football coach Joe Paterno, further amplified the problems.

"They've done some things well, and they've done a lot of things poorly. Unfortunately for Penn State, they don't have the luxury of doing only a few things right," said Brad Phillips, president of New York-based Phillips Media Relations and author of a crisis communications blog.

"It's going to be the case study for years and years to come in what not to do in crisis PR," said Dennis Miller, public relations director at Mansfield University in Tioga County, who has 30 years of experience in higher education public relations.

Penn State's leaders are promising to turn that around by releasing more information publicly, including how much they've paid outside firms to help them through the crisis. New Penn State President Rodney Erickson revealed at a Pittsburgh town hall meeting with alumni that the university paid $360,000 to New York-based Ketchum consultants in November, hired two law firms to represent the board and the president, and hired Lanny Davis, former President Bill Clinton's former lawyer, for legal and crisis communications expertise at the beginning of December.

But university trustees might have compounded their problems by trying to explain their actions, first to The New York Times on Wednesday, and then on Thursday in smaller groups to Pennsylvania media outlets, including the Trib.

Five trustees who met with the Trib reported that ousted President Graham Spanier briefed the board about the investigation into Sandusky in May, after Spanier had testified to the grand jury. Trustees blamed Spanier for not conveying the gravity of the situation, though some members acknowledged that no one pressed for more information from Spanier, who, as a witness, could speak about his testimony.

Steven Silvers, partner in the Denver-based communications consulting firm GBSM Inc., said Penn State's board is filled with the heads of multinational companies such as U.S. Steel and Merck & Co. Inc., partners in major law firms, and a former assistant managing editor of The New York Times.

"These are very, very smart people. These are accomplished leaders. These are people who deal with risk management every single day. They know that there is no excuse and really no explanation for why they should've been so surprised" when Sandusky was indicted in November, Silvers said.

Miller said the missteps were fueled by the way Penn State first acknowledged the scandal, which broke on Nov. 4 with word of the indictment of Sandusky. The next day, perjury and failure to report charges against two university officials, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz, were also revealed.

Spanier issued a statement devoting two sentences to the scandal's core: one calling Sandusky's charges "troubling," and the other saying, "Protecting children requires the utmost vigilance." He then used the next two paragraphs to defend Curley and Schultz, who have been charged with failure to report and perjury.

"They put the emphasis on the wrong thing (defending Curley and Schultz)," Miller said. "... The alleged victims were just buried."

Other public relations mistakes -- such as firing Paterno by phone, inflaming a mob of students who rioted in Happy Valley -- suggest the school's leaders acted before identifying all the stakeholders they needed to appease, said Karen Mishra, a business professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, who focuses on crisis management and is writing a book about that subject. Mishra taught at Penn State in the mid-1990s.

Erickson, the former provost who took over as Penn State president, started to remedy those early mistakes with a promise of openness and transparency and his three town hall meetings last week to answer alumni's questions, Mishra said.

"You want to let people know, 'We're on top of this. Even if we don't know everything, we're going to get the answers quickly,'" Mishra said.

Many alumni, however, vented at Erickson about the university's board of trustees. Erickson said Penn State is creating a website on which it will post online updates on the school's response, including contracts for Erickson and football coaches, as well as those for outside consultants and lawyers. Those postings were supposed to come this week but are now expected next week, a spokeswoman said.

Silvers said recovering could take a generation.

"It's something that is going to be analyzed and psychoanalyzed for many years to come," he said.

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