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Penn State sex-abuse scandal is getting away from administrators

Uneasy Silence
November 9, 2011

Happy Valley could be the most ironically named place in the country at the moment.

Home to the flagship campus of Pennsylvania State University, the town of State College has been stunned by a sex-abuse scandal that implicates top university administrators and has put the careers of the university’s president and one of the country’s most prominent football coaches on the line.

If allegations in a grand jury report are true, it is possible -- given the nature of the allegations, and decisions Penn State administrators made when the alleged abuse happened some years ago that are now widely viewed as having been terrible -- that there was nothing they could have done in the past week to contain the damage to the university's reputation. But some experts on crisis communications in and outside higher education question how the university responded -- and in particular view as terribly flawed the first statement Saturday from President Graham B. Spanier. (A board statement issued late Tuesday, after the interviews for this article, was much stronger than earlier statements in expressing horror at what is alleged to have happened and vowing "swift, decisive action.")

Jerry Sandusky, the former defensive coordinator for the football team, was arrested Friday on charges of molesting children over a 15-year span. Some incidents are alleged to have occurred on university property; one was witnessed by a graduate assistant to the team who reported the abuse to superiors. Two top university officials – athletics director Tim Curley, and Gary Schultz, interim senior vice president for finance and business – were charged with lying to a grand jury during the Sandusky investigation, as well as failing to report abuses when they were notified. The university announced their departures Monday.

Now editorials, commentators and petitions are calling for the resignation of Spanier, Penn State's president of 16 years, and Joe Paterno, who is in his 46th year of coaching the Nittany Lions, for allowing the events to happen under their watch and not taking the necessary steps to put a stop to the abuse. Students, faculty, and alumni have also taken to social networking sites to voice their discontent. Tuesday, the Harrisburg newspaper, The Patriot News, ran a front-page, full-page editorial calling for the resignation of both. (UPDATE: On Wednesday, Paterno announced plans to retire at the end of the current football season.)

While communications consultants are pushing various solutions, including the resignations of top officials, and couching their recommendations by saying that more or different information may still come to light, the general direction of the message is clear – Penn State administrators need to offer credible answers to numerous questions and get ahead of a story that has gotten away from them, and they need to do it fast.

“They are putting their heads in sand and waiting to see what happens,” said Teresa Valerio Parrot, a crisis communications consultant. "Doing nothing is hurting them more than actually providing resources and participating in the process as it unfolds.”

Crises are nothing new to higher education and can catch any institution off-guard, but there are several key issues that provide bigger challenges for institutions, communications experts said. “As a major institution, there are always three or four topics that will be extremely troublesome, and they have to do with race or gender or sex or some deep felonious activity,” said Alan Stone, a former communications executive at Harvard and Columbia Universities. “Everyone’s vulnerable to these, but universities are held to a slightly higher standard, so they’re more vulnerable. These issues always seem to be the ones that take them off-message for weeks at a time.”

The crisis at Penn State -- involving the sexual abuse of children -- is probably the kind of scandal that stays with an institution for a while, like the controversy at Duke University in 2006 when three lacrosse players were accused of rape. That controversy still angers people on both sides of the issue, even though the accused players were exonerated and the lead prosecutor disbarred. While they may not rise to the same level, other institutions -- including Ohio State University, the University of Miami and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- are also struggling with lingering controversies that many say were made worse by a lack of communication management.

Communicating in a crisis is never easy, and experts struggled to come up with an example of a university crisis that was handled spotlessly. Because administrators are often asked to make statements with incomplete information and because stories are transmitted quickly, mistakes are repeated often.

And there’s no shortage of incomplete information at Penn State. Major questions are still swirling about who knew what, when they knew it, and to whom they reported it, as well as whether the steps taken by any university officials violated procedures. That lack of information makes it difficult for administrators, governing board members, and other officials to take firm stances.

So the first step in managing such a crisis, communications specialists said, is figuring out what happened. University administrators should be the first source on new information about events, and they should be completely honest about what they know, and, in particular, what they do not know. “You need to get the truth out as soon as possible and clearly,” said Bill Tyson of Morrison and Tyson Communications, a strategic communications firm that works with colleges and universities. “Everything else you say gets confusing. You’re never going to win unless you tell the truth.”

The Penn State case is complicated by the fact that the allegations in question are part of ongoing criminal investigations, so all the facts are not known. While there has been a grand jury report implicating Sandusky, and charges against Schultz and Curley, none have been found guilty of a crime. The presence of the grand jury report indicting Sandusky also complicates matters. When there’s no report, it is easier to ask the public not to rush to judgment. But a report that lays out serious allegations, and does so in often graphic terms, is hard to dismiss, even if the allegations are false. And the report raises lots of questions about the ethical conduct of some officials -- such as Spanier and Paterno -- who aren't facing legal charges.

Given the complicating factors and the lack of complete information, it’s almost inevitable that administrators will make mistakes, experts said. One of the biggest blunders they point to is a statement Spanier issued Saturday, pledging “unconditional support” for Curley and Schultz.

“With regard to the other presentments, I wish to say that Tim Curley and Gary Schultz have my unconditional support,” the statement said. “I have known and worked daily with Tim and Gary for more than 16 years. I have complete confidence in how they have handled the allegations about a former university employee. Tim Curley and Gary Schultz operate at the highest levels of honesty, integrity and compassion. I am confident the record will show that these charges are groundless and that they conducted themselves professionally and appropriately.”

The next day the Penn State board announced that both Curley and Schultz would be stepping down.  “[Spanier’s] ringing endorsement on Saturday of the indicted officials looks pretty odd in the face of Board of Trustees forcing them out not long after,” said John Burness, senior vice president for public affairs and government relations at Duke University from 1991 to 2007. “There’s a real awkwardness in terms of that.”

The university has also been too quiet about the victims of the alleged abuse, consultants said. “You have to show some sort of care, compassion and concern for the victims,” Parrot said. “That’s what’s missing in Penn State’s response. These are serious allegations, and the victims in this situation have been forgotten.” Parrot said the university needs to open its doors to the alleged victims, particularly by providing access to university counseling resources.

Several communications experts said it is often impossible to make it through a crisis of this magnitude without a few sacrificial lambs. “The gods sometimes demand a sacrifice,” said Gene Grabowski, senior vice president of Levick Strategic Communications, and chairman of the firm's crisis communications and litigation communications practices.

Grabowski said a resignation by Paterno is the only way for the university to begin to put the story behind it. “The alternative is for him to stay there, and that means the story will not go away,” he said. “Every time he’s mentioned on national TV, someone will remark about how sad it was that this incident marred his career.”

If both Paterno and Spanier end up stepping down, the university would have a major leadership hole to fill, having already lost two senior administrators. Both Spanier and Paterno have been at the university a long time and command wide respect among peers.

But protecting the reputation of the institution, rather than that of any individual administrator, needs to be the overall goal, and is the responsibility of the trustees, who are slated to meet again Friday.

 

 

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