Penn State’s PR Crisis

Like all of America, I was shocked to hear of the widespread child sex abuse caused by former Penn State defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky. Penn State, after all, was looked at as a model for what college athletics should be, and led by one of the most respected men in all of college sports, Joe Paterno.

As a survivor and national advocate for sex abuse survivors, I have conducted numerous media interviews, commenting publicly on my dismay that university officials knew that Sandusky was a child predator yet did nothing to stop him from continuously abusing children and finding new victims.

With more revelations each day since the indictments were announced, it is now clear that the Penn State Administration put the interests of their brand image above those of the vulnerable children involved, and countless lives have been severely damaged as a result.

Penn State’s Response to the PR Crisis

As more and more victims have come forward, the damage is spreading broadly, and Penn State has a crisis of exponential proportions on their hands. As with any organization going through a crisis, in the first few days I waited for the university’s crisis communications plan to be executed, but as the country watched, the university sat silent.

No response.

Then came the cancelled press briefing and misinformation that only increased suspicions of wrongdoing within the university.

After more than 25 years in the PR industry, I am amazed at how unprepared Penn State was in dealing with the looming crisis and investigation, which they had known about for two years. There are many crisis communications lessons that can be learned from Penn State’s mismanagement of the situation:

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  • Respond Immediately – In any crisis situation, both the issue and the catalyst for the crisis must be addressed quickly. In this case, Sandusky’s past crimes and victims are the issue, and the indictment of Sandusky and other university officials for the cover-up is the catalyst. And if you don’t go on the record with statements addressing both, someone else will do it for you.
      • To address the issue, PSU needed to immediately reach out to the victims, apologize, and offer anything possible to help them cope with the abuse. It will never be possible to right the wrongs done to these victims, but PSU can still empower the victims to tell their story and seek closure. Additionally, PSU needs to acknowledge their role in covering-up this issue.
      • To address the catalyst, PSU should not only be fully cooperative in the criminal investigation of Sandusky but go further to address the issue of sex abuse in youth sports and the institutions that allow for these abuses to occur. This is PSU’s opportunity to be a leader in helping other large, influential institutions create policies and systems to prevent abuses from happening in the first place.
  • Perception is Reality – Penn State’s President was quick to defend his colleagues without focusing on the fact that children had been abused. His first reaction should have been about his concern for the victims followed by a statement that the university is putting all available resources into investigating all the facts as well as hiring a third party expert to conduct an independent investigation of the allegations.
  • Transparency, Transparency, Transparency – Secrecy is the enemy for PSU. Right now their credibility and trustworthiness in the public sphere is nil, and the public will be rightfully cynical about any effort by PSU to right these past wrongs. To get that back, PSU will have to earn it not only by doing the right thing, but by proving their intentions to the public through genuine transparency.



About Mark Serrano

Mark Serrano, a crisis communications and PR expert, leading political strategist and commentator, and national advocate for sex abuse victims, is available to provide expert insight on the Penn State sex abuse cover-up and the university’s communications approach in dealing with the scandal.

As a sex abuse survivor and national advocate, Serrano offers both personal experience and expert knowledge on this highly sensitive subject. At the outset of the Catholic Church child sex abuse crisis in 2002, Serrano’s story of abuse and secrecy was featured in a front page story in the New York Times, making Serrano the first clergy abuse survivor to publicly break a gag order in a church settlement through the national media. This launched a new role for Serrano as a national advocate for childhood sexual abuse survivors and sex abuse prevention. Serrano has been featured in Rolling Stone Magazine, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and in award-winning documentary films, including Holy Watergate which first broadcast on Showtime. He is a recipient of the Voices of Courage Award, presented to him by Darkness to Light, an organization nationally recognized for its work in childhood sexual abuse prevention and education. Serrano is also a past member of the Board of Directors for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

To read or view some of the news coverage from Mark Serrano’s commentary on the Penn State scandal, please click on the following links:

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