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Gini Dietrich

Providing PR Counsel to Penn State

By: Gini Dietrich | November 30, 2011 | 
177

I’m thinking Spin Sucks should do a moron award…with a badge and everything (maybe Erin Feldman will create one??).

Last week we had Coghlan Consulting Group. This week we had Governor Brownback and Mayor Winder.

I learned about a PR guy in Arizona who tweeted about “midgets” and “special ed” persons…all while working with the Special Olympics.

Then I received an email last night of, what looks to be, another moronic move.

It seems almost too easy. But what do you think? A Spin Sucks Moron Award?

While we think about this, I thought enough time has passed that we can talk about the crisis that is Penn State.

A couple of weeks ago, both Barry Silver and Kevin Vandever posted pretty much the same question about what’s going on at the school.

The President of Penn State U calls late at night and says, “Tomorrow the PA Attorney General is going to indict and subsequently arrest a former assistant football coach and an honored PSU family member for multiple counts of sexual child abuse. Without admitting anything, I believe this is only the tip of the iceberg. Whatever the cost, how can you help PSU limit the ensuing stench to a decade, instead of PSU being stained for a century?” I can’t imagine a worse PR reaction than the reaction of PSU to this unconscionable disaster. Perhaps you can offer an alternate path.

And then, as if they were reading our Facebook wall, Penn State called Ketchum. Which is odd, because Ketchum isn’t known for their crisis work, but good on them. I wouldn’t want the job if they called me the day after Sandusky was arrested.

Why?

Because they had MONTHS to bring in PR counsel. The Harrisburg Patriot News reported on March 31 that Sandusky was the subject of a grand jury investigation.

THAT was when Penn State should have called Ketchum or any other crisis firm.

They could have been preparing for the media onslaught. They could have gone to friendly journalists on their own time. They could have already had their messaging ready, their executives media trained, and a strong strategy in place. They could have had legal pre-approving the strategy and the messaging so they could be proactive, instead of reacting.

Instead, they waited until Sandusky was arrested and he made that terrible phone call to Bob Costas (I would have resigned the account right then and there; talk about a Moron Award) before they decided it was time to spend the money to help save their image and reputation.

Too late, boys.

Sure, the work Ketchum does now can help with all of the media requests. They can work with legal to get messaging approved. They can handle the phone calls and interview requests and strategically decide who gets to talk and who does not. They can even be on campus 24/7 to manage any of the spin-off crises that are sure to happen from all of this.

But now they’re in reactive mode and that’s a very bad place to be in a crisis.

Public relations won’t make the story go away…and it shouldn’t. But it can manage the backlash, the reputation and the image, and protect the school (or business).

My best advice? This doesn’t come from a selfish place because we do crisis work, but because it helps the business. Hire the PR firm as soon as you know something is going to go down. Even better if you have a crisis plan in place, just in case. An insurance of sorts. But I know the real world doesn’t afford everyone that luxury.

But don’t wait until the literal shit hits the fan. Be smart. Be strategic. And have a PR professional on speed dial when there is the slightest murmur that something is going to happen.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

170 comments
augustinejoseph
augustinejoseph

I agree with you.....totally....... but this should a end that no one dares to do this mistake again.......

Bensie Dorien

prcompanionpr@gmail.com

www.prcompanion.com

byronfernandez
byronfernandez

Rather than gripe and garble on about what is inherently obvious to us in PR, I have a few questions of my own:

1) When will businesses stop trying so hard to win a losing battle of controlling and managing everything and everyone around them BUT themselves?

2) When will managers stop managing and Let Go; Lead?

Until businesses remove the pernicious, klunky clubs from their caveman predilections and join the 21st century, organizations across disciplines will continue to suffer from the negative consequences of "lizard brain," knee-jerk reactions to REAL, wrenching and Human issues.

No more patronizing "yes, BUT..." rationale. But what?!?! Grow a backbone and confront your pain folks...

JessiEllerbe
JessiEllerbe

I completely agree with you here! That interview Sandusky gave was an incredibly awful move against any sort of PR that Penn State has. And I also agree with you that any organization needs to hire some sort of PR backup when any sort of crisis is even whispered into someone's ear. Because it's only a matter of time before someone lets it all go and then it ends up a huge mess.

DianaStrinatiBaur
DianaStrinatiBaur

I flew into the states for my annual visit home just as the proverbial PSU Nittany Lion manure was hitting the fan. I'm a product of PSU but I am one of the alumni that never drank the Happy Valley Kool-aid. You make a point, Gini, that PR and doing the right thing are two different things, but this was a situation where both were necessary and neither were done. We have to remember this might be a big university but it is podunk central PA and they only have themselves telling them how great they are. And it's been that way for a long time. They won't listen to PR. Someone would have to stick the Board of Trustees in a room with their mouths duct taped to really effect meaningful change. When I first heard Sandusky's lawyer and then later that interview with Sandusky himself, it was like they had NO IDEA what they had truly gotten themselves into. The lawyer sounded like exactly what he was. Someone who should have been fired before he got hired. And Sandusky sounded like a pedophile. Just the language they used. Childish, stupid, idiotic. But that, and the craziness and disgust of the entire disaster is the result of an isolated temple of learning that only has itself to listen to. Listen. It wouldn't matter what PR firm they hired. PSU would have never followed the advice. They couldn't have realized what a house of cards they had built, how sick the entire organization is, because while this may to some degree challenge the internal paradigm, they still believe they are untouchable. Even with Joe gone, they don't get how bad it is. You can't just erase an entire culture of idiocy with one caught pedophile. And as far as doing the right thing? Happy Valley is a valley of children. They are shell shocked right now, but they still don't, and won't, realize what a dysfunctional mess the University is in. Football will remain intact. They will start drinking the Kool-aid again, first sipping, then in a couple of years it will be back to big gulps. Sorry for the cynicism. PR can't help those who can't help themselves.

manamica
manamica

Yeah the real world doesn't afford everyone a crisis plan, but big schools should have one. They have no excuse except arrogance. BTW I'm curious how this will evolve because wasn't Ketchum behind the blogger hidden-camera dinner (aka the ConAgra foods frozen lasagna PR disaster)?

barryrsilver
barryrsilver

Gini,

Thanks for answering the question. I agree with your assessment that the proper time to seek PR help was as soon as there was a hint of a problem (which for college athletics means retainer or a full PR staff for crisis mgmt.) If forced to take the account recently, (I've been thinking about my answer since I posted the question) I would have suggested self- imposition of the "death penalty" on the Penn State football program. Help all current players find a school, appeal to the NCAA that scholarship players changing schools not wait a year to play and spend two years letting the cesspool drain. As it turns out Penn State did something that may prove to be wise yet,and my stomach turns thinking about it. Wait and others will join you in the sewer helping to block the sewage in the current. In a few short weeks another university and a sports network are helping steer the microscope in another direction.

MarcGirolimetti
MarcGirolimetti

Gini swore! Gini swore! Gini sworrrrrrreeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!Quick, hire a PR firm to manage the shock and awe. Seriously.

Erin F.
Erin F.

On a more serious note, a response plan is essential. I remember working on one about the H1N1 virus when it was the big, scary thing. It was more of a health plan and related to what the university would do if an outbreak occurred on the campus, but it also delved into PR. It stated who would be in charge of communication efforts and who would need to be contacted (parents, professors, staff, et cetera). Those sorts of things can be done prior to hiring an actual PR firm if money's an issue, and, at the university, I believe the internal marketing department was charged with the communication efforts. I think somebody asked in a comment why PSU's marketing and communications department had nothing to say. Then again, even if forming a response plan is expensive, it's often better to invest in something expensive at the outset in order to avoid even more expenses at a later date. I mention this in a different comment, too, but the whole PR mess could have been avoided if the university had done the right thing in the first place.

KevinVandever
KevinVandever

Thanks for answering the question. I'm glad you referred to Barry's well-put question and not my, "Dude, what would you do if Penn State called you?" version. OK, I didn't call you Dude...I don't think.

I would find it hard to take Penn State on as a client this late. I agree that they should have been out in front of this much sooner. Media training? Sounds like spin to me and you know, spin sucks! Seems like legal counsel is more important than PR counsel at this point. Or maybe it's just best to hand out the crown and a map to Ken's newly created Kingdom of Moronica. ( @KenMueller )

KensViews
KensViews

Agree with your post wholeheartedly, like I do with just about all of them.

I'd respectfully disagree with the point that a crisis plan is a luxury. In my opinion, it's an absolutely necessary cost-of-business for any organization in the public eye in the year 2011. That's all organizations, you say? Exactly!

PLEASE do the Spin Sucks Moron Award! Candidates weekly, if not daily!

Craig McBreen
Craig McBreen

No mention of the Ashton Kutcher "How do you fire Jo Pa …" Tweet debacle? ;)

And Demi dumped him (or did he dump her?) ... Now THIS is serious stuff.

NancyD68
NancyD68

Okay, maybe you answered this and maybe not. Why was Sandusky talking to Costas at all? Why did no one issue a gag order? No lawyer in their right mind would allow someone who is the subject of an investigation to speak to any member of the press. That is problem number 1

Problem 2 - if you know your house is going up in flames, why are you running around in a circle? Penn State knew there was a problem brewing for years and did nothing. What did they think was going to happen?

The whole thing makes me shake my head. Morons indeed

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@byronfernandez Great questions, Byron. The problem, though, is we're human beings. We inherently like to have control. The time I spend speaking across the country demonstrates that to me. Most business owners have grown successful companies from controlling things and doing them their way. Giving up control (even if it's just the perception of it) is not an easy thing to do.

Latest blog post: One Social Media Trend

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@JessiEllerbe The best thing Penn State can do now is completely separate itself from Sandusky. It makes you wonder how you let these things go on. I guess you think people will never find out?

Latest blog post: One Social Media Trend

NancyD68
NancyD68

@Craig McBreen Ashton is stupid. That is why Demi dumped him. That tweet got Ashton to hand his Twitter account over to a PR firm. How dumb. Hey, we need another moron award here for Ashton!

jenzings
jenzings

There was some speculation that he could have been trying to somehow twist it so that the information provided in the interview would be inadmissable in court--a lawyer on CNN threw this out as a possible strategy, shaking her head the whole time as to how dumb a strategy it was. My guess is they just didn't think. The lawyer has some issues himself. @NancyD68

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@NancyD68 Problem #1: @Maranda is right. His attorney is inexperienced and he's said to be "friendly" to sexual offenders. It blows my mind ANY attorney of their ilk would let their client go on national television like that, but I guess it takes all kinds.

Problem #2: I think they must be so arrogant they thought it wouldn't catch up with them. I have no other explanation.

Maranda
Maranda

@NancyD68 I could be wrong, but I believe his lawyer is fairly inexperienced with these kinds of cases. I would imagine not issuing the gag order was simply an oversight by the legal teams (one that the prosecution is probably very happy with considering the fact that the Costas interview is admissible in court). I think Problem #2 is the question that is on the minds of soooo many and the reason why Joe is out of a job.

byronfernandez
byronfernandez

@ginidietrich True. In life and work, one of the things I've begun to better appreciate is Timing. Sort of like in the CLE, Chicago, Boston or NY winters: when your car skids on ice in the middle of an intersection, you can break hard and Die, or let go of the wheel and allow physics to adjust itself. ;-) You're right though, as usual ... it's a tightrope to walk in business

KensViews
KensViews

@ginidietrich Wow, I got all caps, even after using the word "respectfully"? LOL. Just because they incorrectly think it's a "mere" luxury doesn't make it so. They desperately need you to educate them on the differences between business luxuries and necessities. There are volumes of case studies proving the importance of response in the first 24 hours, and an organization can only do so if they've got a crisis plan. Hey, I think I just suggested a post for Spin Sucks. And all I ask in return is a credit, a link to my blog and a hug!

MattLindner
MattLindner

@ginidietrich@NancyD68@Maranda Sandusky's lawyer actually offered him up about 15 minutes prior to the interview. As I remember it, Costas was only supposed to do a sitdown with the lawyer, much as the lawyer had done with Anderson Cooper not long before. 15 minutes before Costas was supposed to interview the lawyer, he asked Costas if he wanted to talk to Sandusky himself. So, long story short, that phone call was all the lawyer's idea. He encouraged his client to go before a national TV audience and allowed him to be interviewed by Costas without (presumably) any media preparation. We all saw the results -- Sandusky basically hung himself on live national television, Costas handled the scoop of his prestigious career with the kind of professionalism that we've come to expect from him, and Sandusky's lawyer turned his battle from one that was merely uphill to up-Mount Everest.

NancyD68
NancyD68

@Maranda Agreed. That's the law firm experience talking right there. :) I think they all should be made to hang by their toenails while being subjected to public torture.

If someone hurts my son on purpose, their death would be ruled an accident :)

KensViews
KensViews

I was actually suggesting that Gini blog about it. (Much more her area of expertise than mine) I just wanted a hug. And a plug :) @Lisa Gerber @ginidietrich

KensViews
KensViews

@ginidietrich@Lisa Gerber I know that by now it shouldn't, but it amazes me how many of these execs refuse to learn from history, and instead, risk so much by playing the odds that it won't happen to them. And, @Lisa Gerber , Ms. D seems to be a very selective reader!

Maranda
Maranda

@NancyD68@Craig McBreen Nothing like a good castration to make everyone feel better. And yes, Nancy, horrible idea but it shows Sandusky's arrogance, IMO. And the reason why he did what he (allegedly) did for so many years - he thought he was untouchable. He still thinks that he is.

Craig McBreen
Craig McBreen

@NancyD68@Maranda That was about the most painful thing to listen to, ever, for so many reasons.

I still prefer Howie's castration scenario.

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