Eric Rabe: Lessons from Penn State

November 14, 2011

After a devastating week, where can the University go from here?

By Eric Rabe

The scandal detailed in a grand jury’s presentment and the charges against a former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky and two key administrators has left the University devastated.  The public, horrified at the revelations so graphically presented, reacted with revulsion, not only with the accused sexual abuser but also with the University President, a legendary football coach, two long-time administrators, and of course with the University that let it happen.

Let me stipulate that I am a Penn State graduate; I’m among those stunned by the revelations of the week.  I have also spent a career in journalism, public relations and in crisis management.  From the announcement of the grand jury’s findings I have believed that Penn State’s Trustees had no choice but to act decisively and to dismiss both coach Paterno and president Spanier.  There’s a lot more still to be done before the Sandusky affair will be behind this University.

In an earlier post, I described Penn State as leaderless during the critical first days after Sandusky’s arrest.  No one else was in a position to take charge, but it took the Board of Trustees four days to step in.  Penn State was completely unprepared for the social media and public press firestorm it faced starting November 5.  When students turned to social media to organize campus demonstrations to protest the Paterno firing, again the university was unprepared.

Yet a week later, Penn State is taking important steps.  The student-organized candlelight vigil Friday night and the behavior of players, coaches and fans during Saturday’s nationally televised football loss to Nebraska all communicated that as one speaker put it, “We are Penn State, and we are sorry.” 

The University’s leadership is rebuilding.  New University President Rod Erickson has set the proper tone since being thrust to the forefront after the departure of Graham Spanier.  Erickson’s first message to the Penn State community rightly focused on the victims.  His next was to promise to “...reinforce to the entire Penn State community the moral imperative of doing the right thing -- the first time, every time.”  (Empahsis Erickson’s.)  After the weekend Erickson reiterated five promises he made last week on becoming University president.  This communication is the right approach. 

Yet although those are important words that the Penn State community needs to hear, they are words only for now.  It is hugely important that by its behavior over the weekend, the Penn State community began to reflect these ideas in their actions.  Nothing can do more as Penn State tries to rebuild the confidence lost over the last week.

Some reports and online commentary insist that this scandal developed from a collusion to protect football at Penn State and the hundreds of millions of dollars it generates. There will be many investigations and reports yet to come into whether or this is true. 

However, in my experience both as a journalist and in crisis management, the roots of a catastrophe like the Penn State scandal are rarely that plain and simple.  The roots stem from a characteristic unfortunately common to many organizations: isolated leadership that cannot see circumstances from a public perspective. 

Dealing day after day with staff who know and perhaps love the institution, leaders begin to hear primarily a tinted perspective.  Of course, they don’t recognize that.  They believe that those around them are smart, objective, analytical and reasoned.  But the viewpoints begin to have a center of gravity that excludes true objectivity.  Like so many organizations, Penn State desperately needed outside objective counsel, but didn’t have it.

Public relations often serves that function.  A mentor to the leadership or sometimes an attorney might provide the perspective.  In Penn State’s case, it is all the more remarkable that this view was lacking since there were many opportunities to, first, know about Sandusky’s behavior and, later, to understand that the criminal investigation would likely lead to charges and damning public reaction. 

University officials were being called to that grand jury to testify as far back as January.  That should have rung a loud alarm.  The investigation was drawing public attention.  Last May, Sara Ganim was reporting in the Harrisburg Patriot-News on the details of the grand jury investigation.  Since early in the year, supporters and detractors were debating the rumors about Sandusky’s behavior online in social media.  

No doubt, Penn State has long followed the flow of news describing the University in the daily press.  Were the leadership as in touch with social media?  Coverage like Ganim’s certainly demanded that the University react.

Tragically, there was no one at the University who could see the path that lay ahead.  There was no one back then who could look at the facts with detachment.  Penn State failed to see how quickly, in the age of social media, this story could play out in the court of public opinion and the devastation that could mean to the institution itself.  It is a lesson for leaders of organizations everywhere.

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