Penn State: Outside Looking In
November 10, 2011
There have been so many disturbing aspects to the Penn State story over the last week, and one that has particularly interested me, when I view it through a PR lens, is just how clearly this incident has revealed one aspect of human nature – our tendency to defend our own – and the flipside to that truth: just how stupid that looks to people looking in from the outside when that defense is unwarranted.
In the years that Jerry Sandusky allegedly was raping young boys, Penn State coaches and administrators protected their own by not pressing the issue – more concerned about their football program than about children.
As the news of the scandal broke, Penn State students again protected their own by rallying in Joe Paterno’s front yard. Paterno led the students in cheers, as if this were the time for a public display of Nittany Lion pride.
When Penn State’s board of trust announced Paterno’s firing, there were audible gasps of disbelief from the room – apparently even members of the local media were so bought-in to the football program that they were shocked by news (news the rest of the country applauded). Many Penn State fans complained that Paterno’s firing could have been handled better – as if that was the tragedy in all of this. In the most regrettable display of all, Penn State students rioted over the fact that their football coach had been fired.
From a public relations perspective, this is a clear reminder that one of the most important ways we can serve our clients is to provide an outsider’s view. Many in the Penn State community apparently were too close to the situation to see what was obvious to just about everyone on the outside: as the PSU loyalists were scurrying about circling the wagons (rallying for their coach, chanting fight songs, standing strong for their alma mater!), the rest of us could see that the wagons were already ablaze.
As PR people, we often try so hard to gain a spot in our client’s inner circle, and in most ways it does help us do our jobs better when we have a seat at the table. But in doing so, we must not sacrifice our ability to help our clients see the truths that are evident to everyone but them. Only then can we help them begin to rebuild public trust and their reputations.
– Andrew Maraniss