[Editor’s note: In this guest post, Rick Kelly, director of crisis management at Triad Strategies, examines the still-ongoing Jerry Sandusky/Penn State crisis, and explains how a lack of crisis preparation put the organization in an even deeper hole than the one already created by Sandusky’s actions.]
Crisis management and crisis communication practitioners have a veritable laboratory in the Jerry Sandusky sexual assault scandal. It happened again this week, by way of sworn testimony at a preliminary hearing held to determine whether the cases against three former Penn State administrators should move forward (they will).
Previously, we explored what a crisis management blueprint for moving past the scandal might look like, weighed in on the advisability of shutting up, especially in the absence of interview training and explored the damage that speculation can cause to one’s position or reputation.
This time, we look at an old sports adage that applies to crisis management as well as athletics: preparation is the key to success.
If it seemed that Penn State was unprepared for the media onslaught that began immediately after Sandusky’s arrest, well, that’s because it was. The university’s public information director, Lisa Powers, testified this week that her office “had no idea” how big the scandal would turn out to be or the gravity of the charges that were to be brought against Sandusky.
The first rule for protecting a reputation is that you need to be prepared to do it. Crisis management is an exercise in preparing for the worst, hoping for the best, and figuring that it will probably come out somewhere in the middle. Not having access to information makes it impossible to prepare.
Powers was responsible for crisis management, yet the information that could have helped the university prepare for the media blitzkrieg was withheld from her, as soon-to-be-fired President Graham Spanier tried to manage the crisis himself. The proverb asserting that “a man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client” applies in the court of public opinion as well as a court of law.
Whether the flaw was in the organizational structure or the culture, it’s a mistake to exclude the person responsible for the crisis management function from discussions of highly sensitive matters that could harm an organization’s reputation. One cannot manage a crisis that one knows nothing about.
Additionally, Spanier and university counsel Cynthia Baldwin had multiple opportunities in the months before the Sandusky arrest to provide more details to trustees regarding the grand jury investigation. If they had, maybe – just maybe – someone on the board would have said, “Look, this may just blow over like you say, but just to be sure, let’s bring someone in to help us take a look at and prepare for a worst-case scenario.”
How differently might things have played out had the university been better prepared? We’ll never know.
What we do know is that the university immediately lost control of the issue and in the midst of the media maelstrom threw itself at the feet of Louis Freeh, who produced a report perceived by many as speculative and injurious in the way it leaped from facts to conclusions regarding the actions and motivations of Spanier and his two co-defendants, along with the late coach, Joe Paterno. Using the Freeh report as his basis, NCAA President Mark Emmert then piled on with a $60 million penalty on the university and near-death-penalty sanctions on the football program.
Of course, sharing information about the impending indictments would not have changed the magnitude of the crimes against Sandusky’s victims. As we say with regularity, you cannot communicate your way out of something you behaved yourself into. You can, however, mitigate damage by not letting a bad situation become worse due to a lack of preparation and an ineffective or tardy response.
Rick Kelly directs the crisis management practice at Triad Strategies, LLC.
This post was originally published in The Triadvocate.