The Penn State Scandal: Will You Be Prepared When It Happens To You?
At the end of his life, Penn State coach Joe Paterno of Happy Valley built a program based on the credo of "Success with Honor", but died under the cloud of failure with shame.
Legendary status no longer protects people from media-hyped public prosecution. That's why it is more important than ever for attorneys with clients in the limelight to understand the psychology behind press witch-hunts in order to better protect themselves and those they represent.
Paterno, and at first the top echlon of the University claimed to have been fooled by Sandusky. But outrage built quickly when the state's top cop said the coach hadn't fulfilled a moral obligation to go to the authorities when a graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, told Paterno he saw Sandusky with a young boy in the showers of the football complex in 2002.
Many of the Penn State public relations initial missteps were fueled by the way officials first begrudgingly acknowledged the scandal, which broke on November 4th with word of Sandusky's indictment.
The next day, officials added perjury and failure-to-report charges against athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz.
Penn State President 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.
The emphasis of the statement was put on defending Curley and Schultz, the alleged victims were an inconvenient afterthought. This misplaced emphasis resulted in an immediate shift in public perception from a benefit-of-the-doubt stance to a "they're trying to justify their actions" effort. The knee-jerk firing of those directly involved in the alleged incident only appeared as a last ditch effort to cover-up behavior.
Identifying potential problems ahead of a crisis is always the safest way to protect the reputation of an individual or entity. The first step in doing this is to perform a vulnerability audit. This introspection enables attorneys the ability to anticipate crises and to construct a crisis plan that will enable counsel to negate or, at the very least, lessen the impact of any future crisis.
Clients should collect data from people in key positions and interview key employees from the boardroom to the loading docks. Employees must be assured that their answers will be kept strictly confidential. These interviews will be even more helpful if a third party conducts them.
Just because the crisis is no longer front-page news, doesn't mean its over. Scandals, like sicknesses, relapse if not treated. In Penn State's case it means finally taking control of the communications strategy and announcing proactive measures the university is taking to make sure nothing like the alleged molestation incidents ever happens again.
At its first public meeting since the child sex-abuse scandal broke in January, Penn State's board of trustees adopted sweeping changes to improve safety on campus.
Had Penn State's PR department adopted a proactive communications strategy focused on the morally correct purpose the minute the scandal erupted, perhaps Joe Paterno's legacy would have been better remembered as "Success with Honor" instead of in the shadow of scandal. Don't let this travesty happen to you or your client.