How NOT to Handle a Crisis: The Top 4 Lessons from Penn State

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Penn State couldn’t control whether its leadership participated in criminal conduct — or whether they covered up crimes — but it could control how it handled the fall-out.

Let’s face it:  any situation revealing that your leadership’s moral center is located in its football team’s win/loss record isn’t ever going to be good news, no matter what the issue. But it needn’t have tarnished the school as a whole, alienated the student body, or made the school’s supporters ashamed of it.

In other words, the situation didn’t have to turn into a media circus.

Really? No crisis management plan?!

Astonishingly, it seems that the school didn’t have a communications plan in place to intercept this crisis at any stage: from the initial revelations of possible criminal conduct, to the numerous lapses of judgment by its leadership, to the disovery of the abject failure of moral leadership, to Jerry Sandusky’s arrest, to the firing of Joe Paterno, to the student demonstrations that followed.

In fact, Penn State continues to move forward in a completely reactive mode. It seems to have entirely abdicated any effort to shape the conversation around these stupefying events — ironic in light of the fact that its College of Communications offers a robust course of study on the mechanics and ethics of advertising and PR.

In other words, any second-year Penn State communications student could have offered the university some basic rules of thumb that would have helped them join the conversation rather than becoming the object of it.

Mostly, it’s about keeping it real

There are numerous lessons in the many ways Penn State has bungled its crisis communications. Here are the top four missed opportunities:

#1 Have a plan. Seriously. Penn State spent two years conducting an investigation on possible criminal conduct, yet somehow failed to plan for what might happen if the allegations came to light, much less if they prove true.

So make a plan, then review it at least twice a year. When the time comes, implement. Moving forward, incorporate your learnings and refine.

#2 Be transparent. Answer questions honestly. Especially the tough ones. No matter how bad the issue may be, trying to cover it up will make it worse. Learn from history:  it was a cover-up that escalated a third-rate burglary into a scandal that brought down a presidency.

#3 Deliver your message. State it, restate it, then reinforce it yet again. Defining your message defines the shape of the discussion around your issue. Fail here, and the media will create the message for you.

Penn State didn’t just fail to answer any questions — they also made all of their decisions in closed-session meetings and then cancelled a press conference. Citing “the on-going legal circumstances surrounding the recent allegations and charges” — the very thing they needed to respond to — they left over 200 media outlets with nothing to report other than speculation, opinion and innuendo.

#4 Be part of the solution. Emerging successfully from a crisis isn’t about convincing anyone you were perfect. This is where transparency, sincerity and good intentions really pay off. No matter how badly you may have screwed up, truly trying to make things right goes a long way. That’s not just good PR — it’s good karma.

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