The Penn State Scandal: Crisis as Opportunity

Last Updated on June 5, 2014

Guest Author: Jamie Singer

The impacts of the Penn State child sex abuse scandal are expected to be far-reaching, from football recruits to alumni donations to student enrollment. But is it possible Penn State might emerge from this scandal a stronger brand because of it?

Crises can be tremendous opportunities for brands – from Fortune 500 companies to institutions like Penn State – to demonstrate humility and integrity, show a willingness to do the right thing, and strengthen values-based decision-making, all while the world is paying attention.

This scandal has revealed what appears to be a culture of cover-up at Penn State – a ticking time-bomb that gained momentum in the spring when the university initially learned of the Jerry Sandusky investigation and finally exploded this fall in news reports of the grand jury charges. Penn State cannot go back in time to defuse that bomb. But the university – like all organizations in crisis – has an opportunity to influence its long-term reputation by what it does AFTER the bomb detonates. In that respect, perhaps Penn State should earn credit where credit is due.

For one, the university ousted head football coach Joe Paterno. It was a difficult, but necessary, decision. It was the right thing to do precisely because Paterno – the football program’s unquestioned leader and university’s figurehead – did not appear to do the right thing with the information he received about Sandusky’s alleged crimes.

Additionally, the Penn State community has banded together to support the true victims: the abused children. Students held a candlelight vigil, and the university will donate $1.5 million in bowl game proceeds to sex-crime advocacy organizations.

Penn State will be reeling from this scandal for some time. It is horrific in nature, unimaginable in the isolated cocoon that is Happy Valley, and simply unprecedented in the world of college sports. But there are real-life examples of brands that have successfully emerged from a similar dire set of circumstances.

Take Johnson & Johnson in the 1982 Tylenol crisis, when seven people died in Chicago from cyanide-laced capsules of Extra Strength Tylenol. Although J&J’s market share initially plummeted in the wake of the crisis, today the company is universally referenced as a case study in exemplary crisis management. And while Virginia Tech was initially criticized for its handling of the deadly 2007 shootings, today the university has emerged a stronger and safer organization from which other academic institutions now turn to for crisis prevention and management best practices – from text message-based emergency notification to mass casualty trainings.

Penn State too may emerge as a brand that, in the most desperate of times, came out better on the other side. Here are some of the reputation management steps the university must take:

1)      Clean the slate. Crisis management best practices require an isolation of the problem (or problems) and its expeditious removal. What this means is Penn State must clean house by removing anyone else currently affiliated with the university that is uncovered as having been directly linked to the scandal. This “airing of dirty laundry” will require more short-term pain for Penn State, but it’s crucial for long-term reputation management.

2)      Create a leadership culture that is team-centric. Hero worship permeates the sports world, and Penn State is the quintessential case study for creating a “Cult of the Coach” around “Joe Pa.” This elevation of a single individual means his fall from grace threatens the entire Penn State enterprise. Going forward, Penn State should avoid the natural inclination to “coronate” coaches or any other single university official. In business, companies understand the importance of having a “deep bench,” so leadership and communications responsibilities don’t reside with one person. Penn State needs a team of leadership voices that extends beyond Paterno’s successor to encompass the athletic director, university president and other university administrators. College football programs are constantly building motivation on the field around teamwork; colleges should take this same approach off the field.

3)      Live your values. Penn State’s mantra, “Success with Honor,” is being questioned and, with it, the brand’s DNA. Penn State must now not only tell its values, but it must also show them. Show that Penn State is a place of integrity, through its athletic programs, academic achievements and community involvement. Show that Penn State is willing to foment real, institutional change by instilling a culture of open communication and accountability so that something like this never happens again. Show what it really means when students shout, “We are Penn State!”

Brands should be judged not only on the crisis itself, but also on how that crisis is handled (or mishandled). It won’t be easy for Penn State, but the chorus of one university fight song, “Nittany Lion,” urges Penn Staters to “fight for her honor.” And never before has that had so much meaning as it does today.

Jamie Singer specializes in crisis communications and reputation management at Cone Communications in Boston.

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  • Jeff Roy
    December 7, 2011

    The recommendations offered in your article would likely apply to any organization facing a similar crisis. The recognition that re-branding is crucial to the survival of the Nittany Lions means they must conduct their affairs as would any other business. But what sort of business is college athletics, or more specifically, college football?

    Its product is live entertainment, which means celebrity is essential to its success. Someone has to be the star, and if the team consistently wins the guy on the sideline will inevitably undergo “coronation”. The fans, the media, the alumni, will insure it just by giving him the attention he deserves. By the time the leader of the program crosses that thin line from Coach to King, it’s already too late. Every society on the planet seeks to ordain some paragon to symbolize its values, and an exquisitely designed organizational structure is powerless to prevent it. The cultural drive to do so is timeless and irresistible.

  • Claudio P. Spiguel
    December 14, 2011

    Hello, Jamie… I am a good friend of your grandparents Norman and Naomi Marshall. I met you when you were about 4 or 5 years old with them in New Jersey once. Today I see you have blossomed as a good and objective writer, addressing important issues and making recommendations that match well the established literature in crisis management. Congratulations, and best wishes for the Holiday Season.

    Dr. Claudio Spiguel.