6 questions Penn State’s crisis comms team should be asking

November 9, 2011

Public relations, Sports Sunday


You're PR lead for Penn State and the board has asked you if JoePa has to go. What say you?


What really happened here? I guess that’s where you have to start right? As a PR pro, it’s always vitally important to know what you’re dealing with. And unless you’ve been living under a rock the last few days, you probably know a lot about the sexual assault charges against former Penn State Defensive Coordinator Jerry Sandusky. And the allegations that a grad assistant told his dad he saw Sandusky rape a 10-year-old boy in the locker room. The dad supposedly told legendary coach Joe Paterno. And Paterno escalated it to his AD, but did nothing more.

That’s the story that’s out there. If you haven’t heard all the details, just check out the New York Times, ESPN.com or your local TV and radio stations. Now let’s say you actually worked in PR for Penn State. You’re the crisis comms lead and the board is asking you for a recommendation on how to handle Paterno’s future as coach by the end of this post. As your weaving your way through the storylines and trying to make an assessment of the situation, what questions do you need to ask?

Is JoePa guilty of a crime?

It does matter if he committed any legal infractions and could potentially have criminal charges brought against him. Yes, I’m talking about a crime as in breaking a law. Not as in an ethical crime. We’ll get there. We know the answer here is no. Paterno reported the incident to his supervisor and he is not at risk of prosecution. So there’s that piece.

Does it matter if he committed a crime?

This is a tougher question. Because your job in this crisis is to manage the university’s perception. And Paterno has already been convicted in the court of public opinion. There is no doubt about that. Right or wrong, when you’re talking about public perception, it does not always matter if the person(s) in question are actually guilty. What maters is how the public sees them and what that means to the brand(s) with which they are associated.

Can Paterno say anything to fix this?

How about “I’m sorry.” He should say that, but will it really fix anything? Is there any way for the coach to step behind a microphone at a press conference, tell his side and be vindicated by the public? You also have to think about how his apology will affect the university. If he apologizes, will people side with the school if they decide to keep him? You have to think short term and long term on this one and you have to think about trust. Which leads to the next question…

Does Paterno staying at Penn State jeopardize the school’s reputation and customer relationships?

No matter your answer to any of the other questions, if the answer to this one is yes, you have to fire JoePa. Or recommend that the board give him the opportunity to resign. And the question isn’t just about football players. It’s about students too. When parents send their kids to college, it’s the first time they’re sending them out on their own. The parents and students have to trust the situation. Is that possible if JoePa gets to keep his job?

Does it stop with Paterno?

Say you decide you to recommend letting him go. Is he the only one who needs to be dismissed for Penn State to save face and begin rebuilding trust with its main constituents? It’s a tough question, but it has to be asked. There will likely be some people who see anyone associated with Paterno and Penn State football during the time the incidents occurred, including JoePa’s son, as culpable. It doesn’t matter if anyone thinks that’s fair…it’s reality.

And what about when to let him go if you decide to do it? NBC Sports and ESPN are reporting that JoePa will be allowed to coach the remainder of the season and then may retire. Would that be a solution you would recommend? Is it enough?


Stepping out of the PR analysis phase of this post and into the editorializing phase, there is absolutely no one, not even the legendary Joe Paterno, who can survive a scandal like this. Penn State is already in this mess because the athletic administration turned its collective back on the victims. To allow Paterno to keep coaching, even the rest of this season, would be to turn their backs again in the wake of all the information being out there now. And I can’t think of a bigger slap in the face to the victims or the community.

And I don’t think it stops with Paterno. You have to recommend Penn State cleans house. Time to acknowledge that there are things more important than football in this world. And those who failed to recognize that — Paterno and the athletic department — must be held accountable. Factor in that the court of public opinion sees anyone associated with the incident at fault and the only recommendation you as a crisis comms counselor can make here is to let everyone associated with football at Penn State go, admit fault, apologize profusely, do everything you can to help he victims families and start over.

What will become of JoePa’s legacy is sad. But the role he personally had in making it come too this is even sadder. And it can’t be ignored.

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dabraat 5 pts

The real question no one is asking is fairly obvious. There are all these extremely successful, smart, and, by all accounts, good people who knew about horrific crimes being perpetrated on innocent little boys and they did not stop them. Obvious question: Why not? Any of us would have freaked out and run to the police or beat Sandusky to a pulp. So...

What does Sandusky have on these people that they are too afraid to go to the police? How can so many people do nothing, or the wrong thing, in such a clear cut situation? Something does not jibe.

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RT ThePRCoach #CrisisPR analysis by @JGoldsborough: 6 questions Penn State’s crisis comms team should be asking #PR http://t.co/YJiEIzcd


jgoldsborough His statement with the words "in hindsight" in it today were cringeworthy.


fsutoby Yeah, I think he has to go. Think Penn State is risking a lot letting him coach rest of this season even.