Tag Archives: Penn State

Richard Edelman’s plan for Penn State–video of Board presentation

How many times haven’t you wished you could be a bug on a wall or a mouse in a corner as one of the PR greats presented his or her PR plan to a client? What a learning opportunity. Well, someone just handed us the mother of all learning opportunities. This video of the August 26 Penn State Board of Trustees meeting included a presentation by Richard Edelman on the go forward public relations strategy for Penn State.

I’ve got to give a training session on crisis communication for a private school this Friday, and you can bet I am using a lot of this video for that presentation. This video has the whole meeting, which went on for a while, so to see Edelman’s presentation, jump to about two hours and nine minutes in. And if you don’t want to go through watching the video, I’ve captured what I thought were some of the most relevant points:

(some of this is my paraphrasing, so be warned)

Richard Edelman to Penn State Board of Trustees, August 26, 2012:

“What we see about building reputations has changed profoundly in the last 10 years.. the world has changed, dispersion of media, dispersion of authority, the traditional source of information, the CEOs or president of the Us are the 9th or 10th people we trust. Who are the new sources? Academics, experts and “a person like yourself.” The Facebook effect is very important…

Since 2008 it used to be companies and institutions were trusted because of their performance, because of an outstanding leader. Today, organizations that communicate frequently, openly and honestly gain trust. Transparency matters more than any other factor in achieving trust. Great products and services, and transparency.

“In today’s context, a person has to hear a message 5 to 7 times before he or she believe it. Everyone today has 8 different sources of media.”

The Plan: Research, activate, engage, amplify

Activate—We’ve identified 100 faces of Penn State (professors students, alum) We’ll put them on posters on campus, on the web, video.

Activate alumni—local focus of alumni and what they are doing

Regarding Paid media—”It is something for a year from now.. “We have to earn the right to do paid media..” [we’ll endure] More criticism of us short run if we try to advertise our way through the crisis. A BP kind of solution is not appropriate for Penn State. It’s a bad use of money relative to the impact.”

Participate in the Child Protection Conference—important to engage, but not dominate, be an active participant

Engage—new mantra:transparency. We need to show how we are doing what we do. Presidential search example. Penn State governance report—public annual report, like a Corporate Social Responsibility report. We will visit national media, stories on first anniversaries we have to shape… Stand up specific set of allies—those people always called by NYT, CNN, etc. eg Sonnefeld re governance. Then when he goes on TV he’ll say good things about Penn State.  

On social media: “the Progress site a good start. 4 ideas. 1) Reactive—challenge the negative, like ESPN.com. Engage on specific factual issues. 2) Proactive—develop 3 or 4 issue pillars: 3) Opportunistic—take advantage of opportunities as they arise—like blue ribbons on football players, 4) easy wins—eg put the Nittany Lion on social media, a persona.

On Penn State’s Commitment to service. “Lots of service activities that have not been promoted. #Pennstateserves. Maybe even national service day. Aggregate all the good you do in one place. On website, other places.”

Conduct classic public relations. Eg, announcement of grant for nano-cancer treatment. Aggressively promote students studying sustainability in Jamaica. PR101, but have to stand up this activity.

There you have it from a master. A rich combination of PR basics along with a deep understanding of how much the world has changed. Penn State is in a very deep hole, and it will take a long time to dig out. But Mr. Edelman is so right to encourage them to avoid the tortoise shell response. They have to aggressively get out and tell a story that is much bigger than the horrible events and headlines that put them in the hole.



Penn State now listed among crisis communications top lessons learned

I look back and see moments in time where some of the most powerful lessons of crisis communication have been registered:

Tylenol recall by Johnson and Johnson–lesson–be proactive and show you care more about your customers than your bottom line

US Air flight ditching in the Hudson–the power of Twitter and smart phone pics to tell a story quickly

Virginia Tech–the need to warn those in your care of imminent danger using current technology

Arthur Andersen–what happens when you let the lawyers run your crisis communication operation (you win in court and lose the company)

Now there is a new one to add and one of the most powerful and important crisis communication lessons ever:

Penn State–what happens when you are institutionally blind to a problem and hope that it goes away.

In retrospect it is hard to understand that the blindness and moral ineptitude exhibited by Paterno and the university leaders in the Sandusky case could have been so pervasive in a great university. As this Wall Street Journal article asks, why would not even the janitors who witnessed the crimes against the vulnerable not step forward?

Many are asking, as a friend of mine did in prompting this blog, would it have made a difference if a woman was in the halls of power? An intriguing and important question. But my sense is that the overriding commitment to football and football success would have eliminated almost anyone from sharing that power unless that shared that commitment. That is a great strength of an organization like Penn State or Apple, where certain values are shared with an almost religious conviction. But, as we have seen, there is great danger in that.

There are really two terribly important lessons from this great American tragedy (I can see the movies now). One is the potential for this kind of institutional blindness that enables presumably good people to look past unimaginable horrors because of what they consider “the greater good.” This is the story of so much evil, not just Penn State. So many good German soldiers, for example, participated in things they knew to be wrong for the greater good of the Fatherland. Nazism and Hitlerism are easy marks. There are a great many examples closer to home. The scariest people on earth to me, whether they be on the far right or the far left, are those who are so convinced of the goodness, rightness or moral purpose of their cause that they feel it justifies anything to support it–including killing, torture or, in this case, turning a blind eye to the destruction of innocent young lives.

The other lesson is even more obvious. We in crisis communication keep saying: if you have bad news, be the one to bring it forward. If you don’t, credibility and trust will be damaged or destroyed, perhaps unalterably. So much better for you to tell the world what you have done wrong, or your organization, than to wait for a reporter, a whistle blower, a competitor or activist. That is primarily the lesson of Penn State that will be used in board rooms and C-suite offices for many years to come. And that is a great benefit to those concerned about building trust.

The conversation goes like this:

CEO or Corporate Attorney: We absolutely can’t say anything about this, it will destroy us.

PR person: But we have to, because it is all but certain to come out and when it does from someone else it will appear that we have been hiding it.

CEO/Atty: You said, “all but certain,” that means there’s a chance it won’t. Why create a problem that doesn’t exist and may not?

PR: Because if it does come out, the problem will be many times worse.

CEO/Atty: Yeah but, it may not come out.

PR: OK, hide it, It’s your funeral.

(Alternate ending:

PR: You’re right, we could ignore and maybe it will go away. But look at Penn State. Will the end of your wonderful career be written like that of Joe Paterno?

CEO: You’re right. Call the Wall Street Journal.)

POSTSCRIPT: Just saw this excellent post by Richard Levick, one of the tops in this business, on Fast Company.



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.

Penn State and Herman Cain–why hope is hopeless

I follow the news like others, looking for crises to comment on. I haven’t blogged about Penn State’s problems, just because, well, everyone else was and the lessons seem so obvious. But, perhaps an even more obvious lesson is that these important lessons bear repeating because some just don’t seem to be learning very easily.

The obvious lesson is, if you know something is going to bite you in the rear end, don’t keep your rear pointing in the same direction. Turn around and face the problem head on.

The absolutely amazing thing about Penn State is that this was such an obvious “smoldering” crisis. And it was smoldering in large part because they did nothing about it. Herman Cain was a bit of fresh air in the primary race in part because it was just kind of intriguing to consider the possibility of two smart African-Americans facing off for the presidency. But, did not Mr. Cain and his campaign have any idea that these issues would come up in the race? I have no idea the legitimacy but the mere fact that allegations were raised and settlements paid in the past meant that it was 99.99% certain to become an issue. Democratic machine or no Democratic machine, this is politics today and such secrets are all but impossible to keep.

So, if Penn State knew for a long time about the allegations and the explosive nature of them and did nothing about it, how can intelligent leaders do such a thing? And Cain, did he not think or consider that he may want to be the one to bring the allegations, which he absolutely claims to be false, to the public’s attention? Hope might be a good campaign slogan, but it sucks as a crisis communication strategy.

It’s well documented that the vast majority of crises are “smoldering.” There is time to prepare. More important today, in an age when secrets are all but impossible and are always tainted with coverup, the way of dealing with bad news is to be the first to tell it.

I’m guessing there are an awful lot of future political candidates, members of boards, and senior leaders of large organizations who look at these two events with great discomfort. They know what they need to do, but dread the consequences. So, they continue to hope.

Good luck to you.