Nittany Lyin’: Penn State’s PR Woes Far From Over

Normally, the noise you hear coming from Penn State University this time of year is at Beaver Stadium, home of the Nittany Lion 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 Lion program in 1999. The charges against him are serious, but what happened behind the scenes at the university is just as deplorable.

Penn State 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 have 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, is a trifecta of public relations and legal trouble. Penn State is being slammed by reporters, both in the news and sports world. 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 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 honesty. And 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 by a school president on icy ground.

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

And it is tough, right now, to see it work in the future.
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  • My gut tells me that behind all of this is the Penn State college football money juggernaut and the fear that the program would take a huge blow which would cause money and potential fame degradation for the University. It’s no surprise the unequivocal power that college football programs wield over Universities and the millions and millions of dollars of revenue they generate. If they were to expose this scandal, surely recruits wouldn’t want to play, alumni donations would drop off and national TV revenue would decline. Just goes to show you the enormous power that college sports have and the impact they can have on a school if they are subjected to this kind of bad press. Such a sad thing for the kids that were abused. My sympathies go out to them and their families.

    • The shameful part of this is that the university played with the lives of young children. They allowed this to go on without any repercussions. If the president of PSU was aware of this and didn’t do anything, he has no moral code. 
      Now that Paterno is retiring, it does nothing to help this situation. Paterno was a very, very small part of this. PSU’s president needs to resign.

  • Allison

    I agree, Paterno should have spoke at the press conference. Right now the University needs to be transparent and not make it look as if they are hiding things. They need to create a message fast and deliver it acknowledging the issue and answering all the questions they are allowed to.

    • Transparency, honesty, openness. This scandal should not have gotten to the level it did. I feel for the kids that were abused. Penn State did nothing to help at all. Now, PSU is dealing with the consequences. This is a textbook case in PR circles of what NOT to do.

  • Mollie128

     This is such a disturbing situation, and I’m still surprised university staff would try to hide it for as long as they did. I agree with your statement about this branding Penn State forever. I hope that after the dust settles and guilty parties are charged, Penn State can resume it’s status and use wiser judgment in the future.

  • KristinM

    This is a completely disgusting situation, and the lack of accountability in at Penn State certainly makes a terrible situation even worse.  Paterno has since been fired, and you would think that most agree he deserved to be due to taking no action with a situation he had to have known about.  However, students were actually protesting the firing.  It’s interesting to see the spin put on this from both sides.

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