I dabble in public relations at the college level, so I’ve been avidly following the mess at Penn State, which really blew up overnight. From the NYT story:
After top Penn State officials announced that they had fired Joe Paterno on Wednesday night, thousands of students stormed the downtown area to display their anger and frustration, chanting the former coach’s name, tearing down light poles and overturning a television news van parked along College Avenue.
The demonstrators congregated outside Penn State’s administration building before stampeding into the tight grid of downtown streets. They turned their ire on a news van, a symbolic gesture that expressed a view held by many that the news media exaggerated Mr. Paterno’s role in the scandal surrounding accusations that a former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, sexually assaulted young boys.
Despite Paterno’s low level (or no level) of culpability in the case — he reported to administrators that an athletic assistant had observed Sandusky violating a young boy in the Penn State locker room — the Board of Trustees fired not only Paterno, but his boss, Penn State President Graham Spanier, reportedly one of the highest-paid and longest-tenured college presidents in the nation. Paterno did what he was supposed to do, but there is evidence that Spanier and two of his administrators tried to put a lid on the accusations. This is a perfect example of the cover-up being worse than the crime (but just barely) and has evoked comparisons with the Catholic Church’s attempts to hide its pedophile priests. So far nine victims — disadvantaged boys enrolled in a program Sandusky founded — have come forward, and there are undoubtedly more out there.
The board’s actions may seem draconian, but they were right to do what they did. Indeed, they should have fired the whole lot of them last week, or last month. From a public relations standpoint, you want to keep your bad news to what we in our office call a 24-hour news cycle: Own up to the problem immediately, deal with it or turn it over to the someone who can (in this case the police) and MOVE ON. No one is served by wringing your collective hands and sitting on the truth. It’s like a festering boil — grit your teeth, lance it, shoot it up with antibiotics and allow it to heal. A band-aid, no matter how big, isn’t going to cover it forever. It won’t make it go away.
I’m sorry for Joe, a football legend who should have gone out with fireworks instead of this pathetic whimper, but he hired Sandusky, even groomed him as his heir-apparent. (Which makes me wonder: How well do we know anyone, really?)
I hope now Penn State can start to heal.
Update: And I thought it couldn’t get any worse…