Thursday, September 06, 2012

The price for avoiding bad publicity just went up: Penn State's latest price tag

What if I told you that you could have $17 million to defend the reputation of your company or university or nonprofit? Sound good? Unfortunately, it's a price tag that comes with its own price tag--because it's what Penn State University is spending on its PR and legal defense in the wake of the Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

Ironically, it's $17 million spent to fix the outcome of a cover-up that itself was supposed to help avert a PR disaster. “'In order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity,' the most powerful leaders of Penn State, Mr. Freeh’s group said, 'repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities, the board of trustees, the Penn State community and the public at large'."  That's how the New York Times summed up that cover-up effort, and thus far, the most visible "fee" is the NCAA's $60 million fine and penalties that force Penn State to forego lucrative post-season play for four years

But this week, word came of the new bill for image-protection. Here's how it breaks down: "Nearly $16.8 million in costs through June 30 were broken down as almost $10 million for internal investigations and crisis communications, close to $4 million for university legal services and defense, and nearly $1.2 million in other expenses. The total also included about $1.6 million for legal defense of the school's officers..."

Harder to price: The damage to Penn State's football motto, "Success with Honor." The word "with" might be the only part of that motto left with its original meaning in the wake of the scandal. Recently, in What if your slogan is true?, Seth Godin put this in perspective for me:
If the story of your work is consistent, if it resonates with your audience and if you can defend it, then you're likely to succeed. And if your slogan reflects your story, good for you....So sure, start with a slogan. But don't bother wasting any time on it if you're merely going for catchy. Aim for true instead.
One of the downsides of the Penn State scandal for communicators is its scope, duration and level of deception. At first glance, it's easy for other companies and institutions to dismiss it, saying, "Of course, that was awful, but nothing like that will ever happen here." But in my experience, even the finest of organizations and businesses has issues that it wants to keep from the light of day--and it's a light they'd rather not shine too brightly on their own statements, taglines and mottoes. 

If anyone had suggested getting out in front of this negative issue by making it public quickly and elevating the discussion--especially if that happened when the first complaints came to the administration's attention--we might be talking about Penn State as a national leader in corporate social responsibility as well as a powerhouse of football. And that kind of effort should fit in anyone's budget.

As it is, communicators (and their CEOs) had better keep sharp ears out when anyone says, "We have to do whatever it takes to avoid bad publicity." Smart communicators will be sharing this price tag with their leaders as a reminder of the cost of doing business this way, and holding up their slogans and taglines up to the light to see whether they match up with your worst internal nightmares. Are you ready to do that?

(Photo from Caitlinator's photostream on Flickr)

1 comment:

David said...

That dollar figure is only going to rise. And you're absolutely right about getting in front of the issue. Further, Penn State doesn't have the relationships with credible third parties to rebuild their reputation. From this vantage point they're trying to "come together as a community" as opposed to building bridges beyond their own.