Penn State, PR, Media & Chaos


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.

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4 responses to “Penn State, PR, Media & Chaos

  1. Very good post Dennis. University’s not only need a strong PR team to work with the media, but to help create a positive image and environment for the students. We all know that is one of the hardest things to do.

  2. Great post. Not only have the victims been ignored, but the media has focused its attention on someone who did what he was supposed to (contact campus police) and has been villified–and is the only person who has openly admitted that he wishes he had acted differently when the incident occurred.

  3. Higher ed can be amazingly decentralized- to the point of being destructive. So when you write “I doubt if a PR person would have waited until the last minute to cancel Paterno’s weekly press conference,” I think to myself: the central PR team may not have known about Paterno’s weekly press conference (amazing to think it’s true, but completely plausible). Or, perhaps the central team thought the athletics PR team (they likely operate more or less independently from one another) would have shut it down given the circumstances, but didn’t.

    Lots of obvious things that should happen in higher ed don’t because deep rooted structural problems make them nearly impossible.

  4. Thanks for the comments. Kris and Karen, I agree. Mike, you’re right about decentralization being dangerous, especially in a crisis situation like this. You may well be right about the central PR team not knowing or being a part of the weekly press conference. It will be interesting down the road for the PR profession to find out what happened behind the scenes so we can all learn from it.

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