I’ve been following the Penn State story with the same sorts of feelings nearly every other human being has had. But from a professional’s point of view I’ve concluded that both the public relations and news professions have failed miserably.
I have known the Penn State university relations VP for decades. He is the consummate PR professional, as are his staff members. So I have to assume that the PR staff was told to sit on the sidelines during unfolding debacle.
Why do I think that? Because no PR professional would have let his or her college president meet the media and support, by name, two employees who would surrender to police the next day.
I’ve been in crisis PR situations on a much smaller scale. In every crisis situation, the prevailing force is chaos. The president relies on the PR staff for guidance and knowledge of how the media works. It is a time when cool heads, logic, and especially truth as far as it is known, is needed.
I doubt if a PR person would have waited until the last minute to cancel Paterno’s weekly press conference. By now there were reporters on hand from around the world. A university spokesperson should have stepped in and held the conference because when there is a void, someone will fill it. And when someone else fills the void, it’s probably with content you’d rather not see.
The story would not have turned out any differently, but PR professionals would have helped set a tone of civility and helped the media as much as possible to smooth out chaos’ rough edges.
The media were allowed to run wild, and the media today are, in good part, a batch of barbarians sniffing for blood and egging each other and the public into an unholy frenzy when the bleeder is found.
Granted this is the perfect storm of scandals with:
– an alleged crime so heinous most of us cannot imagine it;
-an American icon;
-football, which is as much about self-identification and emotion as it is about tactical ways to move a ball to and fro.
Sit enough monkeys down with computers and they’ll eventually get a good take on Shakespeare. Our monkeys are thousands of bloggers with opinions, some sincere, some just hit mongers. We have news analysts screaming empty-headed opinions and unchecked “facts” because they have to fill time and race in the ratings.
We have news sites like Huffington Post coloring our view before we even read the story with headline words like “Legendary Football Coach FIRED Among Horrific Scandal!” and “HORROR: Ex-Assistant Rumored to have “Pimped Out” Young Boys.” They’re spinning stories out of rumors.
Facts were allowed to be muddled. Chaos reigns. The victims, for God’s sake, have been smothered in the dust of the stampede for the Next Big Thing.
I know there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes that we’ll probably ever know. But I also know that there was no visible PR staff to act as a conduit between university and media.
And the media, for the most part, have acted like undisciplined, irresponsible, screaming children.