Friday, November 18, 2011

Crisis Management 101: Understand the magnitude of the problem and get PR help quickly

By: Cole Buergi, Senior Account Executive, Leonard & Finco Public Relations, Inc.

The sexual abuse accusations against assistant coach Jerry Sandusky at PENN State University has destroyed a once pristine image of a college steeped in rich history, championship athletics and an educational experience second to none.

The school is now reeling from backlash as more details surface about the extent of the alleged abuse and who knew what and when.

Examining this from a pure public relations perspective, the university’s leadership has failed in the handling of this crisis. The incredibly slow response by the college to even acknowledge there was a crisis shows me just how much the school believed in its own infallibility.

The leadership appears to have completely ignored the magnitude of the problem and to get outside PR help immediately to make efforts to stay out in front of the story. Only recently has the school hired an outside PR firm, skilled in crisis management, more than a week after the first news story appeared about the abuse.

During that time, the university’s famed head coach Joe Paterno was forcibly retired, students have protested in the streets, more victims are coming to light and the depth of who knew what and when is starting to become known.

Hindsight is 20/20, but all PR experts know that when in a crisis mode, the first thing to do is assess the situation to determine its magnitude and then immediately assemble the resources to address the issue. In this case, hire outside PR experts! The goal is to get out in front of the story, working to shape the message and minimize the damage to your brand.

The university did none of this and now the story is out of their control. In fact, their lack of reaction is only adding to the appearance of complacency with the happenings around them.

If brought on board immediately, could a crisis management team have saved the university’s reputation? That answer can never be known, but a swift, proactive response would have definitely helped give the impression the school was working to find out the truth instead of cover it up.

Only time will tell if the PR team can salvage or rebuild the image of this famed college.

I’m curious to know what our readers think about it. If the university’s leadership had reacted more quickly, could the story have taken a different direction and not done as much damage to the college’s image? What do you think they should do now moving forward?

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