Penn State Has Forgotten It's A Public (as in PR) School

Often, in adverse situations, “good PR” can be difficult to spot. When messaging is clear and immediate and it reaches its audiences, it’s sometimes hard to notice. That’s because when it’s effective, the public can “move on.”

But “bad PR” is very easy to spot and not just for those of us in “the business.” Today, at about 11:45am, when Penn State’s President cancelled its regular football press conference (after it became obvious that the 100+ journalists who arrived early weren’t interested in the ridiculous “football questions only” mandate), social media lit up fast. From sports writers to casual fans to everyday Pennsylvanians, it was obvious that 84 year-old coaching institution Joe Paterno and his bosses were doing the wrong thing in avoiding public comment on the child abuse scandal that has disgusted the nation.

Now, the “ivory tower” mentality of academia is now on full display. The Penn State administration is proving that it lives the life of isolation and arrogance that validates every higher education stereotype.

Forgotten here is “public” part of public universities and public relations. We, the taxpayers of the United States and the taxpayers of Pennsylvania are the most important constituency of those who are now facing deserved criticism. Says who? How about the Mission Statement of the Pennsylvania State University? Click this link and look at the fifth word. Public. Joe Paterno and his President serve the public. They have an obligation to answer the public (via the media and otherwise).

But it’s clear that President Graham Spanier has no regard for the public. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have avoided the media, cancelled today’s press conference or approved this statement over the weekend, presumably written by lawyers and in-house PR counsel. In it, he gave “unconditional support” to two of his direct reports who face charges that instantly outraged the public. Unconditional? Obviously, anyone who saw it ahead of time and may have suggested that a statement like that does not address the seriousness of the charges, reeks of cronyism and essentially slaps the public in the face was ignored.

When public individuals don’t talk when facing adversity, it appears to the public like they have something to hide. Based on what I saw online today, that fact has become common knowledge in the social media age. In this case, public individuals accused of hiding something have even more of an imperative to face their real “bosses” – the public. But thanks to culture and ego, it seems like they will never learn.