As a former public relations professional, the lack of regard for the importance of communications by corporate bigwigs still amazes me. Why do we only get called in after an issue blows up in their faces? Why do people see public relations as something used to help spin things they let get out of control in the first place?
Granted, not all people treat public relations departments as the ugly stepchild. Still, in this day of social media, blogs, YouTube and such, there is no “hoping it blows over without anyone finding out.” Putting your head in the sand is a surefire way to suffocate the life out of an organization.
If the recent Freeh report detailing the disgusting culture created by those in charge at Penn State University doesn’t point out the need to include a corporate communications team within an organization’s inner sanctum, nothing will.
According to the Freeh report, the reputation of the University was at stake. From CBSNews.com:
The report says that moreover, Paterno — along with then-president Graham Spanier, former VP Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley — were trying to protect Penn State’s reputation.
The reports states that it is “reasonable to conclude that, in order to avoided the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at Penn State University … repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities, the Board of Trustees, Penn State community, and the public at large.”
Furthermore, Paterno was worried about his football program more than anything else.
First, how could anyone — public relations pros or otherwise — possibly think that outing a pedophile as soon as you found out would possibly ruin your reputation more than it would had the story leaked and you had done nothing? Oh, and where is your human decency?
Second, and more pertinent to the argument here, the first rule of PR is to be honest. That doesn’t mean that you volunteer every piece of dirt about you or your organization. However, you also don’t hide it. If someone is on a witch hunt and they find some witches, well, don’t paint yourselves as angels with halos on your heads.
Had the communications experts at Penn State been included in this conversation from day 1, clearly they would have attempted to right the ship and had the college report Sandusky to the authorities in 1998. The university (and football program) may have taken a hit in the court of public opinion. However, that would have been nothing compared to this.
Now? Now the University has a long road ahead toward restoring its reputation as an academic institution who cares about helping kids become adults. All this because of some pervert at the beginning, but also because some corporate bigwigs and a revered football coach thought they knew how to handle a situation without ever consulting someone whose job it is to gauge public opinions and steer you clear of reputation pitfalls. Not to mention, doing the right thing by kids.
If there is a PR lesson that corporations, organizations and case study experts can take from this tragic situation, it better be to be proactive at all times, instead of reactive.
Include your communications and public relations professionals in every strategic and dicey situation from the beginning. Give them a seat at the head table.