Penn State’s image tainted indelibly—and PR can’t help

The child-sex scandal—and the university’s multiple missteps afterward—have tarnished its reputation long-term, if not permanently.

Normally, the noise you hear coming from Penn State University this time of year is at Beaver Stadium, home of the Nittany Lions football team. Head coach Joe Paterno has built a respected program over the years. Unfortunately, that program and the university itself are dealing with a different noise now.

Over the weekend, former football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on charges of sexually abusing eight boys over a 15-year span. Sandusky retired abruptly from the Nittany Lions program in 1999. The charges against him are serious, but what happened behind the scenes at the university is just as deplorable.

Penn State’s director of athletics Tim Curley and former interim senior vice president for business and finance Gary Schultz were each charged with one count of perjury and one count of failure to report suspected child abuse. Both were arraigned and released on bail Nov. 7.

According to the grand jury’s findings, both Curley and Schultz were aware that Sandusky engaged in “sexual conduct” with a young boy in a shower located in the Lasch Football Building and did not notify police. The charges go even higher.

Penn State president Graham Spanier and Paterno both appeared before the grand jury during the investigation, which began in January 2009. Neither has been charged, but it is clear that both knew about the incidents.

Perjury, failure to report a suspected case of child abuse, and a university that did nothing about it are a trifecta of public relations and legal trouble. Penn State is being slammed by reporters, in both the news and sports worlds. Child abuse victims groups are circling. Spanier, in a bad PR move, released a statement on Saturday in support of Curley and Schultz.

Obviously, this could have been avoided—or at least mitigated—if Penn State had acted swiftly against Sandusky. But the incidents continued even after he retired from the program. Still, the university didn’t budge.

Lying within an organization will always be uncovered. That is why in public relations, we talk about being open with our clients. However, when a scandal goes all the way to the university president’s office, it’s hard to uphold integrity. That’s not an excuse; it’s an unfortunate reality.

On Tuesday, Paterno was scheduled to speak about this week’s football game against Nebraska. The news conference was canceled by Spanier, just hours before it was to be held, according to Scott Paterno, Joe’s son. This was another bad PR move, not just for Penn State, but for a school president on thin ice.

This scandal will forever brand Penn State. Even Paterno, who is an institution at the university and in collegiate sports, isn’t immune to criticism and blame. This incident will hurt his legacy. No amount of good public relations will help Penn State now.

And it is tough, right now, to see it working in the future.

Jason Mollica is the president of JRMComm, a public relations and social media marketing consultancy. Find Mollica on Twitter @JasMollica.

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