Penn State Finally Gets It Right: Crisis Communications

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 9, 2011 – 12:01 AM

On Sunday night, I posted an article criticizing Penn State University President Graham Spanier for his tone-deaf response to allegations of sexual abuse by a former football coach.

His response, which prioritized two senior University executives instead of eight boys who were reportedly molested, was a perfect example of how not to react in a crisis. Mr. Spanier may lose his job over his role in this scandal, and the local newspaper, the Patriot-News, has already called for his resignation.

It’s fair to say the University’s crisis communications effort got off to a disastrous start.

But late tonight, the University’s Board of Trustees released a near-perfect statement that should serve as a model for other organizations entangled in crisis.

It reads as follows:

Statement by The Pennsylvania State University Board of Trustees

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Board of Trustees of The Pennsylvania State University is outraged by the horrifying details contained in the Grand Jury Report. As parents, alumni and members of the Penn State Community, our hearts go out to all of those impacted by these terrible events, especially the tragedies involving children and their families. We cannot begin to express the combination of sorrow and anger that we feel about the allegations surrounding Jerry Sandusky. We hear those of you who feel betrayed and we want to assure all of you that the Board will take swift, decisive action.

At its regular meeting on Friday, November 11, 2011, the Board will appoint a Special Committee, members of which are currently being identified, to undertake a full and complete investigation of the circumstances that gave rise to the Grand Jury Report. This Special Committee will be commissioned to determine what failures occurred, who is responsible and what measures are necessary to insure that this never happens at our University again and that those responsible are held fully accountable. The Special Committee will have whatever resources are necessary to thoroughly fulfill its charge, including independent counsel and investigative teams, and there will be no restrictions placed on its scope or activities. Upon the completion of this investigation, a complete report will be presented at a future public session of the Board of Trustees.

Penn State has always strived for honesty, integrity and the highest moral standards in all of its programs. We will not tolerate any violation of these principles. We educate over 95,000 students every year and we take this responsibility very seriously. We are dedicated to protecting those who are placed in our care. We promise you that we are committed to restoring public trust in the University.


This statement is near-perfect for at least five reasons: 

1. It prioritizes the victims. The Board doesn’t come across as primarily self-interested, which offers a stark contrast to the tone of earlier statements released by School President Spanier and Head Coach Joe Paterno.

2. With this statement, the Board aligned itself with the anger the public is expressing over this incident. As a result, the Board has a chance of being seen as “good guys” in this story instead of being lumped in with those who clearly didn’t act quickly enough.

3. The statement uses real language, not the language of a statement written and vetted by fourteen attorneys. It uses non-hedging, raw, and evocative words such as “anger,” “terrible,” and “betrayed.”

4. The Board announced a specific plan to manage this crisis by creating a Special Committee which will be authorized to investigate this scandal without restriction. When a crisis strikes, the public wants to know that the organization in crisis has a plan to solve it; the Board took an important step in that direction tonight.

5. The Board released the statement quickly. Instead of letting this story simmer for several days or weeks, the school’s Board took decisive, unwavering action within 48 hours of the story breaking. 

UPDATE, November 9, 2011, 11:30pm: Penn State University has fired President Graham Spanier and Head Football Coach Joe Paterno. When I originally posted this story, some people disagreed with my analysis since the Trustees’ statement didn’t include a more specific timeline (they had a point). The action by the Trustees to dismiss Mr. Spanier and Mr. Paterno makes its statement even more powerful, since it demonstrates they will not hesitate to take strong action quickly.

Want to learn more about the right way to manage a crisis? Here are Seven Rules To Remember When a Crisis Strikes. And if you want to keep on learning, join our mailing list on the upper right corner of the blog.

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Comments (7)

  1. By John Barnett:


    Excellent post and I concur completely with your analysis. While I understand and appreciate the need to balance the desire to not appear rushing to judgement and protecting the university legally, I still don’t understand why Penn State (and so many other entities facing similar crises) haven’t taken a lesson from other media mistakes — there have been plenty to learn from recently.

    We are working with a client right now that deals almost exclusively with disaster response and the key point we keep drumming into their heads is keeping the message compassionate, credible, consistent and concise. Penn State avoided all of this until — as you have very effectively pointed out — the Board of Trustees weighed.

    My question for you is while the statement issued was excellent, is it too little, too late? A single, albeit great, statement won’t be a silver bullet. I would expect the Board/University will receive continued backlash from the media, public for appearing slow to react, insensitive to the victims, not taking the allegations seriously unless they continue to be more aggressive and transparent in this matter. Your thoughts?

  2. By Brad Phillips:

    John –

    You’re exactly right that this statement isn’t a silver bullet. It’s a start, and they will have to sustain it over time for the statement to have a significant impact. For example, the Board said that it is creating a Special Committee. The Board will need to report back to the public regularly regarding the Committee’s progress, timeline, recommendations, and resulting policy changes.

    Critically, though, I do think it communicates a sense that the adults have finally entered the room at Penn State – a BIG improvement over the past few days.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. By cksyme:

    Hate to throw a fly in the ointment, but how you start is everything in crisis communications. I disagree they finally have it right. It only would have been “right” if this came out three days ago and was given by a real person in front of the press. They still haven’t put a real human being in front of the public, and that is something that is key in crisis. I give them a C+, up from yesterday’s F.

  4. By Brad Phillips:

    cksyme –

    Thank you for commenting – you’re not a fly in the ointment at all! I created a blog in the hopes that readers would engage in smart discussion and debate, so I appreciate your opposing view.

    Actually, I’m not sure we’re that much in opposition. I agree that a statement released a day sooner would have been even better, but I’d argue it’s a big step in the right direction. As for a real person, I agree they’ll need it eventually (sooner rather than later), but I actually thought this was one of those circumstances that was served better by articulating the school’s official position in writing first.

    Thanks again, and please keep your thoughts coming!

  5. By Amy:

    Much better, but still, a “committee?” To investigate things that have already been investigated by professionals. The idea of a committee seems to indicate things happening slowly, it would have been better if they gave a specific date (soon) for their report. Hopefully it will be as “swift” as they say. Of course things need to be investigated regarding campus policy, but still didn’t sound decisive. With the rumors of Spanier’s impending resignation, however, I wonder if that was also providing a day or so of cover.

  6. By Eddie Francis:

    Brad, you and I had the same thing for breakfast when you initially posted this. Nothing is perfect is crisis communications but you have to be as effective as possible while staying consumer-centered. Good stuff.

  7. By David Z:

    The idea of a committee seems to indicate things happening slowly, it would have been better if they gave a specific date (soon) for their report.

    Or to show a group/consensus (if not majority or single) show of support on a specific, critical issue like this one. While it’s nice if a specific date was given, they probably didn’t want to make promises they couldn’t realistically keep.

    At any rate, there’ll be debates on could’a, should’a, would’a, and damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t. An important thing is how they’ll manage despite the situation.

    As events later showed, they talked, then followed up with action. The latter speaks louder than words, after all.

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