Geile/Leon Marketing Communications

Penn State: Smart PR and Stupid PR


While this whole, sordid, Penn State scandal continues to unfold, it occurred to me that just within this one situation, we’ve already seen two examples of how public relations is being used.

One example illustrates how public relations should be used—as an invaluable communications tool during times of crisis.

The other example illustrates a lot of things—stupidity, incompetence, naïveté and arrogance, to name a few.

Let’s start with the smart one. The university has retained the services of PR giant Ketchum to help guide it (from a communications standpoint) through some scary, uncharted waters.  Now the case can be made that Penn State was late in bringing Ketchum on board. That’s a fair shot. In the end, they made the right decision, even if they were a little slow pulling the trigger. In my opinion, I don’t think the damage incurred by waiting is irreparable. 

Now when the public hears that someone or some company in trouble is hiring public relations help, they assume that “spin doctors” will work their magic and make the bad news go away and replace it with good news. While that sometimes happens, it doesn’t appear to be the case in State College, PA.

Institutions in crisis make a smart move when they hire smart communications professionals. So far, it looks like a strategic communications plan was developed and is being implemented in a competent, professional manner. Simply put, they’ve acknowledged that there are some very, very ugly accusations being made against the university and some of its staff members, and they are doing everything they can to get to the bottom of it.  They have quashed the perception that the university was hiding things.

This is PR-101—when faced with a problem, discuss the solution. That’s what we at Geile/Leon Marketing Communications, a St. Louis PR Agency, advise our clients. THAT is the value of good PR.

I happen to think that the university is really doing a great job in being open and honest about what’s going on. Kudos to the PR professionals who are managing the process, and kudos to Penn State for being smart enough to take smart advice.

Now to the not-so-smart PR example. The guy at the center of this nasty mess, former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, actually agreed to a live, unedited, national television interview. I’ll get to how the interview went in a second.

The first thing that came to my mind when I heard about the interview was, “Who thought this was a good idea?” No PR professional worth his or her salt would EVER recommend someone facing multiple charges of child sexual abuse go on national television to discuss it. I would think his attorney would have slammed the door shut on this in about 2 seconds.

Well as we all know, the interview did happen and Mr. Sandusky did himself no favors. If in fact a PR counselor advised him to do the interview, the aforementioned counselor did an atrocious job of preparing Mr. Sandusky for it. Mr. Sandusky’s performance was simply awful—we’re talking “fingernails on a chalkboard” awful.

One example—when asked by the highly respected Bob Costas, who was his usual, professional, even-handed self, if he “did anything wrong”, Mr. Sandusky paused for about 4 seconds, then responded “I guess I shouldn’t have showered with them”.

Oh my.

He has only himself to blame. Shame on him for thinking the interview was a good idea, and shame on whoever convinced him to do it.  It’s a perfect example of terrible PR advice being executed terribly.

Unfortunately for Penn State, it looks like the narrative of this story has several more chapters to it, and all of them most likely, containing some real ugly stuff.

On the plus side, they were smart enough to realize that they needed professional communications advice and went out and got it. If they’re smart enough to heed that advice, they just might avoid the destruction of this great institution.