Can Penn State Put the Happy Back in Happy Valley?

October 9, 2012 at 3:56 pm Leave a comment

 Today’s sentencing of former assistant Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky puts something of a cap on the crisis that has defined the university since the story broke in November, 2011.  The question is can this venerable institution rebuild its brand?  Yes, but with care. 

 Before moving on, Penn State officials need to answer five questions to the public’s satisfaction:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Who’s responsible?
  3. Was it intentional?
  4. Could it happen again?
  5. What does it say about the brand?

 The way Penn State honestly tackles these questions (and I do mean honestly) will determine whether the public sees their next steps as more of the same or a true attempt to rebuild trust.

 If and when they lay that foundation, here are 10 steps I’d like to see them take to regaining their reputation:

  •  Acknowledge mistakes – What disturbs people most about this scandal is how mightily Penn State has fought the idea that their culture encouraged the idea that the university could do no wrong.  Clearly, looking the other way on a scandal of this magnitude illustrates a flawed mind-set.
  • Implement deliberate and honest recovery actions – It’s time to reconstruct that mind-set and honestly change the system.
  • Build coalitions and support structures – Penn State has already started reaching out to alumni to cultivate them as their community ambassador.  They are also in the process of actively mobilizing others who are loyal to the institution like students, parents and faculty.  Good for them.
  • Commit to meaningful change – This mean honestly looking at how things are done, what’s acceptable behavior and building a fail-safe system that allows people to anonymously report their concerns.  It will help the university truly prevent something of this magnitude from happening again.
  • Demonstrate behaviors you are advocating – This means integrating an attitude of compassion, composure, humility and sincerity in all your rebuilding efforts.
  • Monitor progress – With today’s technology, monitoring the conversation can and should be a critical step in gauging the reaction to your efforts and adjusting them accordingly.
  • Keep in touch – Let everyone who cares about you know how you are planning to rebuild.  Share your strategy through social media, traditional media, your website, You Tube, and those good old standbys like letters, personal phone calls and emails.  It’s not enough to launch a recovery campaign; you need to bring them all on-board.
  • Solicit ideas for recovery – Those who have been hurt by this blow to the Penn State brand, deserve the dignity of helping you recover.  Set up formal ways of soliciting and using their ideas.
  • Survey stakeholders – You’re going to want to know what’s working and what’s not.  Make sure you ask the people who care, over and over.
  • 10. Don’t celebrate moving on too soon – Make sure you respect all the victims of this tragedy by avoiding the impression that you’ve put the whole thing behind you and are ready to forget.  This dishonors them and makes your recovery efforts seem superficial and disingenuous.

Penn State has a long road ahead of them, but I believe they can and will recover.  They’ll need to be honest, demonstrate that they learned from the scandal and have the ability to move on in an ethical manner.  It won’t be happy in Happy Valley for a long while, but with a concerted effort, Penn State will become a better and more compassionate institution. Today was just the first step.


Entry filed under: Crisis Management. Tags: , , , , , , .

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Andrea Obston, President

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