Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The point where Penn State got caught: Lessons for communicators

Not too long ago, I conducted a media training in which we looked at this video (also embedded below) of the University of Florida's president in a news conference the day after the "Don't taze me, bro" incident in which campus police used a taser on a vocal student in an open meeting. That presser is a great example of how to handle an organizational firestorm, which is why I use it in trainings. And it's the opposite, so far, of the approach being taken this week at Penn State, where a longtime football coach is alleged to have repeatedly abused young boys participating in a charity he founded for underserved youth.

I'm not a lawyer, so the point at which I see organizations getting caught has nothing to do with the moments that involve indictments, handcuffs or prosecution. Instead, organizations (and their executives) get caught, in my mind, long before that point, and the Penn State case appears to open a window on precisely when that happens. Getting caught happens at the moment when someone with responsibility at any level thinks "No one will find this out, so I don't have to do anything," or something like it. That might come out in your head as "I did my part, and I don't have any influence on what happens next," "I hope this doesn't get out," "Really, it's a small thing," "This is just sand in my shoe," or "Could it really be that bad?" To which I say, and smart communicators say, in order,
  • "So you'd like to be known as the person who passed the buck when this hits the fan?"
  • "But it will get out--let's assume that, particularly if we adhere to the laws on reporting such things--and what will we say when it does?"
  • "Let me play out for you some scenarios where this becomes something more than a small thing..."
  • "Let's address it substantially before that sand in your shoe becomes a sand dune."
  • "Yes, it could be that bad, and I can't really make it look better."
Before this incident hit the fan, I was about to write a post about communicators in organizations serving as the vice presidents of the unseen but soft underbelly of their companies, universities, government agencies or nonprofits--that thin-ice space in which bad things might and often do happen. It's where good, smart communicators play a crucial role in being able to spot the weakness, point out the public ramifications and perhaps steer the ship away from danger.

It's a role particular to the in-house communicator, one an agency rarely sees firsthand. "What you're about to do is completely legal under these statutes," many lawyers I've worked with would counsel colleagues, "and now Denise will tell you how it will look if you do that." And my followup often would be, "I can only make it look slightly less bad than it really is. Maybe." I like to think we steered folks mostly to the right path, before things like this happened.

The Penn State story is still playing out as I write this post. But I can tell you we are way past the point where I consider the organization to have been caught--that appears to have happened many years ago. Here's the thing: If communicators of responsibility know about these questions when they arise, their most critical role can be influencing what happens next, from a full stop and full disclosure before the problem festers, to the extreme of quitting when smart advice is rejected. And yes, I realize your worst nightmare is the place without the "if" in that sentence. Maybe you don't know. But maybe, you do, even a little. 

Many of my clients, when they see my cautionary tales in training sessions or in blog posts like this one, say something like "We saw that--we all emailed it around and congratulated ourselves that it wasn't us this time."  The way my mind works, I'd take another tack: Events like this week's Penn State debacle should have communicators turning their thoughts to whether their organizations might be next up, and what needs to happen to avoid that.  Here, some steps you might take in such a situation--or better yet, before you find yourself stuck in this kind of quagmire:

  • Use other scandals to ask the difficult questions: It's easy enough to say, "Here's how Company X or University Y is getting slaughtered over this issue--so tell me, do we have anything like this, even being rumored?" Or share some video of the offical pronouncements and ask, "How would we look if this happened here?" You can accurately note that any institution similar to the one under fire will face similar questions from here on out, and urge executives that you need to be ready to answer them.
  • Get your spokesfolks beyond the vertical pronoun:  A crisis of this nature demands going beyond defending yourself. Remind your principals (yes, you must) that their public statements should go beyond "I did what was required of me" to that 30,000-foot point that reminds us they remember the noble goals of the mission. Fight with the attorneys as needed on this score. In the clip below, note that the UF president first talks about academic and First Amendment freedom of speech, and about personal safety--not who-tased-John, not I-didn't-know. He goes to what's really at stake for the community, not why this is all about him. This week, I wish Penn State's leaders had spoken more about the organization, less about whether they as individuals endorsed each other or felt not guilty.
  • Cultivate a culture that questions "How will this look?" Communicators can't do this all by themselves, but they can keep the drumbeat going, be available and keep raising the question until it becomes an expectation. At the first rumor, question or issue arising, start asking this question to focus others. It's not just a tactical question, but one that can push actions--the right kind. In yesterday's New York Times, columnist Frank Bruni put it bluntly, comparing Penn State to similar scandals in the Catholic church and the Boy Scouts, but in a way all communicators should hear: "Institutions do an awful job of policing themselves." Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post walks you through the failure of leadership at Penn State to question itself. Communicators: Make it possible for the questions to be asked by asking them yourselves.
  • When all that hits the fan, consider whether to stop PR as usual: Somewhere in the middle of the firestorm today, Penn State kept issuing feature releases on its athletic program, even as the tsunami of coverage and commentary overwhelmed most channels. As you've seen here before, shutting off your automated and pre-scheduled announcements during such a crisis keeps your even-more-watchful audience from thinking you're out of touch.

Here's a contrast refreshing to watch: Take the time to watch and listen to this video from the UF incident, and mull how this week would have gone had Penn State done something similar in its public statements. I welcome your useful comments on this post and this issue.

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