What Every Professional Can Learn from the Penn State Debacle

Posted by on November 15, 2011 in Business News [ 0 Comments ]

By now most have heard about the Penn State scandal and follow-up riot. This left a mess for the Penn State marketing, public relations, and social media departments to clean up. In other words, every business professional can learn something from the chaos.

For those who missed it, Penn State’s head football coach Joe Paterno was fired last Wednesday, November 9th after being accused of keeping a 15 year long sex abuse story from authorities. Paterno began coaching the Penn State Nittany Lions in 1966, and during these 45 years was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, coached 5 undefeated teams, became the only FBS coach to reach 400 victories, and won two national titles (1982 and 1986). Needless to say, the students were unhappy to hear the news that he was fired, and this is where yet another PR/social media head scratcher began.

The students at Penn State were so upset by the news that nearly 1000 left their dorms and apartments and caused a riot. The students covered two city blocks, damaged two light poles, and turned over a media van. Some state troopers were even forced to use chemical spray to help thin out the protestors. Unfortunately, the Penn State PR, marketing, and social media departments did not have any chemical spray to help control this horrible situation, but they were (and still are) left with a lot of cleanup work:

  • Perjury (false information was given to help keep the abuse scandal under wraps). Although no coaches have been accused of perjury at this time, two administration officials were charged with lying to authorities.
  • The University failed to report suspicions of child abuse.
  • Although the least of their worries, students proved that they were not above getting out of control and vandalizing campus and TV station property. They were supporting their coach (not lashing back at the University’s cover up). Shouldn’t more time have been spent considering the facts?

This scandal is one that will rock the future of the entire University. Marketing campaigns will have a difficult time creating something that’s truthful because the words loyal, safe, and well-respected have become a joke when in connection with Penn State. PR departments will have a difficult time yielding questions from the public and trying to answer in a positive light. Finally, social media has helped spread this story faster than wild fires. There are thousands of stories circulating the web about Joe Paterno and Penn State, and you’d better believe those have been tweeted, shared, stumbled, and dugg hundreds and hundreds of times for millions and millions to see.

3 Lessons Professionals Can Learn for the Chaos

This scandal can teach professionals a lot about being blindsided by a scandal and then having to pick up the pieces. Although most company problems are not quite this serious, mistakes happen in business all the time, and cleaning them up is always a team effort. Consider these three lessons that can be taken from this news:

1. First, social media is powerful. With the simple click of one button, and individual can share a news story to hundreds (or thousands) of people. This then will spiral into a domino effect. For business professionals, this is both a blessing and curse. While this can help you send out the positive, it can help spread the negative even faster. If there is ever something that gets out to the public that is controversial, you must react immediately before it blows up in your face. Thank you, social media.

2. Second, internal stories will be revealed. As a true professional you should not be hiding anything in the first place, but if someone tells you to turn a blind eye, do not assume that the problem will go away. Everything always gets out sooner or later, so do not fall victim to the “please don’t tell anyone” act.

3. Lastly, honesty is always worth it in the end. This overlaps a bit with the last point, but nonetheless is deserving of extra attention. If someone tells you they want you to keep something a secret, no matter how small it may be, don’t keep the secret because you’re afraid it is going to get out. Speak up to someone because it’s the right thing to do. If you don’t feel comfortable telling the person in charge, find someone who is willing to set the record straight.

Keeping a scandal hidden for so long is a horrible crime. Whether the marketing, PR, or social media department had a say in keeping the story hidden we will never know, but this is not something that cannot be forgotten. Although this can be used as a learning opportunity for business professionals, the victims in the case were those abused by one of the former defensive coordinators, Jerry Sandusky, and it is important that this continues to be remembered. I believe that no matter how these departments try to soften the blow, this University is in trouble—and rightfully so.

Photo Credit: bustedcoverage.com

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