A behind the scenes look at Penn State PR efforts

I found this article from espn about Penn State’s post-crash PR efforts very interesting. According to the story four memos from new Penn State president Rodney Erickson to his board detailed the behind the scenes effort to stabilize the school’s reputation after the arrest of Sandusky and the firing of Paterno and the former president.

A few highlights:

– a lot of focus on donor contributions along with the message that previous contributions would not be returned. The donor picture was very positive with donations increasing substantially and the public statements of support from donors.

– some interesting comments about “aligning our message” and the confident declaration that “we are taking control of the narrative of the story.” That kind of triumphalism in light of the deep problems no doubt would serve as a red flag in front of the journalistic bulls.

– memos contained details of their monitoring efforts that showed sharp declines in interest in Penn State

The memos were released as part of a public records request, which is interesting because according to the article the school is largely exempt from such requests and declined to provide additional documents including memos beyond Nov 18.

Some important lessons here:

– everything you document in a high profile situation likely will find its way into the public arena–particularly if tax payer dollars are involved, but even if not, it’s a very transparent world

– Despite the overall negative tone of the espn article and the smarmy headline: “Officials focused on image” (like, duh!) the article demonstrates to me anyway some clear headed and effective leadership being demonstrated by the new president. It also gives an interesting inside perspective to a limited degree of the much maligned public relations team which suggests that whatever happened before, they are doing the things they need to do including focusing on key relationships, prioritizing major issues, and closely monitoring the internet for public sentiment.

– with all the press about the stupidity of the mistakes that were made, few commentators or reporters gave much recognition to the position the administration was in as the Sandusky story broke. They had the winningest coach in university football history, an icon, practically a god to some folks. They had fans and a donor base who would not stand for (indeed many did not) any perceived injustice against Paterno. In fact, many supporters still believe he was not treated fairly and take great exception to the way the university is trying to distance itself from his aura.

Crises like this, particularly complex reputation crises, are much more nuanced than how the story is typically told. Journalists have to tell a story in a way that simplifies, eliminates confusion, and to make it interesting, tell it in a melodrama fashion where the good guys are clearly separated from the bad guys. Bloggers and the millions of social media commentators seem to slide easily into extreme corners, amplifying the demonizing that happens in the media, or demonstrating what appears to be blind, unthinking support. The truth is somewhere in there, but with all the words spilled, it is often hard to find.

The problem with this is those on the inside who have to make the decisions see the complexity while those of us on the outside do not. What is critically important is that oversimplified outside perspective be brought inside, to the highest levels, to help guide the decisions that need to be made. Because, despite the complexity and conflicts in the Penn State debacle, the officials making the decisions did not have the clarity of vision to see how their action and inaction would be communicated and seen.