The child sex abuse scandal at Penn State is a public relations disaster that the university is likely to be dealing with for years to come.
The challenge for one of the nation’s top public universities: Winning back a reputation for honesty, integrity and transparency without waiting that long.
It didn’t take long for repercussions to be felt by the university in the aftermath of criminal charges filed this month against Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant football coach accused of molesting eight boys over a 15-year period.
Amid a barrage of the worst kind of publicity, at least half a dozen advertisers were reported to have pulled their spots from ESPN telecasts of the school’s upcoming games. Many suspect the scandal also threatens donations supporting the school’s $1.6 billion endowment, the ability to attract student applicants, along with recruiting athletes to a program that generates close to $50 million annually. The reputations of top administrative and sports leaders already have been shredded.
Penn State’s trustees hired the Ketchum public relations firm, owned by Omnicom Group Inc., to help the school deal with a mounting PR catastrophe. Two university officials are charged with perjury, and head coach Joe Paterno and president Graham Spanier were fired for not doing enough after Sandusky was accused of molesting a young boy in the showers of the campus football complex in 2002.
Asked what the school needs to do now to restore its reputation, a university official acknowledged that transparency is needed.
“The short answer is honesty,” Bill Mahon, vice president for university relations, said in an email. “Most of us are still struggling with the shock of the allegations last week, and the sudden loss of a number of senior administrators including our president. We lost the public’s trust.
“Penn State must focus on gaining public trust back,” he said. “It will be a long process.”
But is forthrightness enough? Here are edited excerpts of what branding experts said when asked what else the university can do to improve its tarnished reputation:
When child abuse is in the mix, traditional rebranding doesn’t even stand a chance. Drastic action must be taken:
University officials should pledge to donate all of Penn State’s football revenues next year to child abuse charities. They should also hire a prominent, highly respected person, of Colin Powell’s stature, to review the entire program, issue a public report, oversee all necessary changes and hire the next coach. And suspend Paterno’s $500,000-a-year pension.
— Mark Stevens, chief executive of branding firm MSCO in Rye Brook, N.Y.
Chief among the university’s actions moving forward is a full and sincere apology to the children and families who have been affected by the actions of the accused individual, and the inaction of the entire Penn State management structure. Next, Penn State needs to cooperate fully with the investigation of the alleged child abuse and identify all individuals involved in the obfuscation, with swift dismissal of any and all those who played a role in covering up the abuse.
It also needs to set an example of ethical behavior and start “walking the walk.” It should be prepared for many years of reparation, reputation-building and instilling ethics into the culture of the institution.
— Gerard Corbett, chair-elect, Public Relations Society of America
If they start winning next season, a lot of this is going to be forgotten and forgiven. That sounds awful to bring this all down to whether their football team wins or loses, but that’s the recent experience of colleges that have had big scandals.
Penn State still needs to do something for the victims and their families — counseling, free schooling or something else meaningful.
Beyond that, the university has also got to find a top-drawer new president. If they get a trustworthy, top-quality president who cares about the students and the faculty, he or she can go a long way toward healing the hurt that’s surrounding the program.
— Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management, Louisville, Ky.
The people who run the university have to put some programs in place, whether it’s courses or seminars or symposiums, to help the students and the faculty and the alumni deal with what’s happened. They have to recalibrate how the university is going to conduct itself and lessen the dependence on college sports to build their brand. Put more emphasis on academics and what universities are all about: learning and truth-seeking and helping people prepare for life and making contributions to society.
— Alan Siegel, chief executive of New York branding firm Siegel and Gale
University leaders have to say, “This has nothing to do with the value and the tradition and the efficacy of the institution. This is something that happened at Penn State as the result of human error. This is not a Penn State University problem; it’s a problem that some employees at Penn State had and we’re addressing that.”
Soon another story’s going to knock this scandal out of the headlines, something will knock it off the front pages and the story will go away. It’ll be the Jerry Sandusky trial, not the Penn State trial.
If I were involved in their sports recruiting, I would make a big thing of restoring the honor to Penn State.
— Rob Frankel, a branding consultant in the Los Angeles area and author of “The Revenge of Brand X.”
You can’t sit and do nothing, because things just get worse and worse.
It’s critical in cases like this for two things to happen: You have to communicate frequently and as openly and honestly as possible, from the highest officials within an organization — the president and the chairman of the board.
And they have to take action and announce it publicly. They need to form a task force that examines every other department and create a mandatory training program for every faculty member, coach and staff member on how to handle a future situation like this. And they need to share information with other universities about how to create a safer, more stable environment for children visiting campus.
— Kelly O’Keefe, professor for brand strategy at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Brand Center.