Transparency is job No. 1 for Penn State after Freeh report

To recover from the Sandusky scandal, Penn State University must significantly change the school's culture, industry experts told PRWeek.

To recover from the Sandusky scandal, Penn State University must significantly change the school's culture, industry experts told PRWeek.

Former FBI Director Louis Freeh's law firm Freeh Sporkin & Sullivan released its long-awaited report on Thursday that said the university's leadership, including former head coach Joe Paterno, showed “total disregard for the safety and welfare” of children abused by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

Edelman, which was hired by the university in April to work on corporate communications, media relations, and stakeholder engagement, has advised the school and its board of directors on how to recover from the child-abuse scandal. The university also brought on Harrisburg, PA-based La Torre Communications at the time. It previously worked with Ketchum on its response to the crisis.

“They have to reiterate the strengths of the academics of the institution. They have to talk about their new governance and prove that they are having a culture of compliance,” a source at Edelman told PRWeek. “Football is a huge part of the brand, but ultimately over time you'll see a more dimensional brand. Don't run away from what you have, but make it broader.”

PRWeek asked crisis communications leaders to comment on what Penn State's top priority should be to restore its reputation. A roundup of their answers follows.

Jack Yeo, SVP and director of crisis and issues management at MSLGroup - "The facts contributing to this tragic situation represent a significant breach of trust that will not be forgotten anytime soon. To that end, the new leadership at Penn State has a steep hill to climb to begin to restore the university's reputation. Moving forward, they need to continue to make certain that their statements expressing regret and "taking responsibility" for what happened are backed by the appropriate policy changes that fully and completely correct the “football first” culture at the school and ensure the university is in full and complete compliance with the Clery Act. Most importantly, however, they need to continue to address this issue in the most forthright and transparent fashion possible as they work to rebuild."

Rich Tauberman, EVP at MWW - “Penn State has done the right thing in bringing in Freeh and replacing officials in the administration and athletic program, but the way ahead is very complicated. It will live with the fallout for a long time from a reputation and financial perspective. I would counsel Penn State to continue taking the steps it is taking to cooperate with investigations and law enforcement, show contrition and empathy with the victims, including not engaging in aggressive or divisive defense of civil actions. In short, learn from debacle of what the Catholic Church did with its sexual abuse issues and do the opposite. The university can also take a lead in making this horror a teachable moment and get out in front on the very real issue of sexual abuse and harassment in the athletic and college world. They could start a foundation in honor of the victims to help out those similarly situated and educate officials, administrators, athletes, parents, etc., on all aspects of this matter.”

John Hellerman, co-founder of Hellerman Baretz Communications - “Considering the report and the findings of a massive cover-up, I think their priority must be complete transparency. They have to demonstrate an entirely new culture, which will take years to achieve. What happened at the school is a tragedy. They need to be completely transparent and dismantle the cult of personality and their shrines to Paterno. Nothing about him can remain sacred there except the lesson he left that when good people fail to act to stop bad people, tragedy results.”

Gene Grabowski, EVP and chair of the crisis and litigation practice at Levick Strategic Communications - “What Penn State has to do, as soon as possible, is someone in a position of high authority has to apologize for the actions of the university and immediately start talking about steps they are going to take for transparency, as well as all of their actions and the steps to be taken so something like this never happens again. Transparency now is paramount.” 

Mike Paul, president and senior counselor at MGP & Associates – “They have to lean on the truth, and the truth also comes with a lot of liability. That's where the [courts of law and public opinion] differ. In our court… you have a further ethical and moral obligation to tell them what is best for their reputation, which is when you've done wrong to be held accountable, not to spin it or lie for them. The best thing you can do is tell the truth. Sometimes going to jail for six months or two years is the best thing you can do for your reputation and to have the reputation for your whole life. How can you rebuild when you're still lying?”

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