Penn State got it right. Rutgers didn’t.
Amid a sex-with-boys scandal involving assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, Penn State’s Board of Trustees took no prisoners. They fired everyone in the chain of command, from popular head football coach Joe Paterno, up through the bureaucracy to the university’s president. The rationale was simple: If they knew, they were culpable. If they didn’t know, they should have.
Rutgers missed that memo. It tried to cover up physical and verbal abuse of players by head basketball coach Mike Rice. After a tape of the abuse aired on national television, Rice was fired. That’s where Rutgers hoped the blame would end — until word leaked out that other officials knew and looked the other way. With each disclosure, the university hemorrhaged more.
There are lessons here:
- The cover-up is worse than the original sin. Always.
- If an issue will become public on its own, get ahead of it. Make it a one-day story, rather than letting it drag on for weeks or months — and drag you through the mud.
Regrettably, these rules are often overlooked by those who are too intimately involved. In the heat of the moment, their ability to make critical decisions is impaired. CYA is the default.
But the rules are a mantra to those who work in Crisis & Reputation Management. The worst thing you can do is prolong negative news. The best is get beyond it — refocus attention of the media and the public onto the future. That’s what you want the conversation to be about: What you’re doing now and the change it will bring.
After announcing Penn State was cleaning house, the Board’s vice chairman said exhaustedly, “The past several days have been absolutely terrible.” True. But now the worst was over.
“Because Reputation Is Your Most Valuable Asset”
Gillott Communications is a Los Angeles-based public relations firm that specializes in high-stakes Crisis & Reputation Management. If you don’t already subscribe, please sign up for our blog Insights on High-Stakes PR. You can reach Roger Gillott directly at 310-826-8696.