Guest contributor Steven Fink is president and CEO of Lexicon Communications Corp., a crisis management and crisis communications consulting firm, and a Penn State alum. His most recent book, Crisis Communications: The Definitive Guide to Managing the Message, was published last spring by McGraw-Hill. His author’s website is www.StevenFink.com.
His remarks at Penn State, “What to Do (and Not) When Things Go Wrong,” are online at http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/39879842
I have been doing crisis management work all over the world for about 30 years, and have been involved in every conceivable type of crisis you can imagine. I have never seen a crisis communications fiasco as bad as the Penn State crisis. As a Penn State alum, it was all the more painful to watch. Nevertheless, my observations are, I maintain, objective from a professional crisis management point of view.
That, in a nutshell, was the message I delivered during an address at Penn State on October 15, at the invitation of Doug Anderson, dean of the College of Communications. The HUB-Robeson Auditorium was filled with students and faculty who had come to hear, among other things, a professional assessment of the Penn State crisis, from a crisis management and crisis communications perspective, which are my areas of expertise. I manage crises for companies, organizations—and even major universities—for a living.
Many have criticized the gross mishandling of the Penn State crisis by the Board of Trustees, but my talk was designed to shed much needed insight into why the Board erred so badly—what drove them to make a series of such calamitous decisions. To me, it was no mystery, for I have seen first-hand how company boards who are under attack often make hyper-vigilant (read: knee-jerk) decisions in the face of intense crisis-induced stress they are ill-prepared to handle, often in search of that elusive concept called “closure.”
Some years ago, I wrote the first book ever written on the subject, Crisis Management: Planning for the Inevitable, which remains to this day the most widely read book ever published on the topic. As part of the research for that seminal work, I surveyed the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and gained real insight into how companies and large organizations respond in crisis. Last spring, my latest book in the field was published: Crisis Communications: The Definitive Guide to Managing the Message. As I was writing that book, the Penn State crisis erupted, and I had ample opportunity to fully analyze the many blunders made by the Penn State Board of Trustees. That full analysis is contained in a chapter called, “Say It Ain’t So, Joe! – The Penn State Crisis,” which details, step-by-step, the mistakes that were made, why they were made, and what should have been done at each critical turning point.
I bluntly told the Penn State audience that its fiasco never should have happened, never would have happened—including the punitive NCAA sanctions—had the board followed sound crisis management and crisis communications strategies.
Of the many blunders made, I highlighted only a few for the Penn State audience; there were many others. What follows is a summary of my remarks.
Blunder No. 1: The Firing. Whether or not I think Joe Paterno should have been fired is beside the point. But once the Board made the late night crisis management decision—“Joe must go!”—everything that followed was horrific crisis management and communications blunders borne of panic and ineptitude on the part of the BOT.
Unless you are issuing a warning that a train has derailed and toxic fumes are headed toward a residential area, or a dam is about to burst and may wipe out a town, or convicted killers have escaped from prison and are on the loose, or aliens have landed on the White House lawn…never hold a press conference or issue statements in the middle of the night. It sends the signal of someone—in this case, an entire board of someones—in panic mode. It was not the firing as much as it was the manner and the timing of it that was a direct cause of the late night student rioting. Sadly, this was completely foreseeable and entirely preventable. The Board, no doubt, felt besieged by reporters banging on its doors and was desperate for sanctuary.
What was gained by the late night firing? Where was the urgency? Was anyone in danger? Were any children at risk? No. What in the world was the Board thinking? If the decision was made to terminate him, the ending of Paterno’s career should have been done in daylight, perhaps at noon the next day. He should have been given the news by the president personally in the president’s office, and certainly not on the phone. Only cowards send lackeys to deliver tough news. That became as much of the story as the firing itself.
If Paterno had agreed to go quietly at that time—remember, at this time he had already said he would step down voluntarily at the end of the season, just a couple of games away—then a joint announcement should have been made, with President Erickson and Joe Paterno standing shoulder to shoulder. This would have served to somewhat quell the media frenzy and certainly would have played a large role in preventing any late night student unrest.
A good crisis manager would have made this happen. But at no time did the school have anyone with the proper crisis management experience advising them.
I have been told by several “in the know” individuals that the Board had so-and-so advising them, and so-and-so on the Board had even managed his company’s own crisis some years ago, etc., etc., so clearly they thought they had the best people advising them. Nevertheless, I stand by what I said: at no time did the Board have the right people around the decision-making table. In a crisis, you need experienced crisis managers who have distance and objectivity, and who are not emotionally tied to the outcome of events. That was a huge oversight and the cause of more troubles ahead.
So, why did the Board make the bone-headed firing play? They were reacting to the media frenzy and the mob mentality of a media horde that was screaming for blood. Firing Paterno was tantamount to throwing red meat over the battlements to try to appease the barbarians storming the gates. Again, the school had no one experienced in dealing with a media firestorm, and they caved, foolishly thinking the madness would go away once Paterno was sacrificed.
The media were driving the story—not the grand jury presentment, which had charged Paterno with…nothing! But the wolf pack mentality of the media had them reporting “stories” ahead of facts and drove the story with wild abandon. The Board and the school were victims of reckless media driving.
Blunder No. 2: Louis Freeh and the Freeh Report. In my career, I have been involved in calling for outside independent investigators a number of times. We have even used retired FBI investigators to uncover the facts in a crisis. Hiring a guy like Freeh was the right move in that it sent a strong crisis communications message that the school was serious about uncovering the truth. But it seemed that no one on the Board had a handle on Freeh and he became a rogue cowboy.
The generally accepted method for this procedure would have called for Freeh to submit to the Board (or a special sub-committee of the board) a draft of his report before it was finalized and released to the public. This would have given the Board a chance to review the draft findings and ask questions for clarification, and so on, so as to avoid being blindsided. It would also have given the Board a chance to flag or correct any perceived inaccuracies in the report. This is a common courtesy. None of this was done, which was a huge flaw in the Board’s competence level not to insist on it.
Next, the seven-page press release, which the Board never saw in advance, and which Freeh read to the media on live TV, made charges that were not supported by the actual 267-page report. Freeh hyperbolically connected dots that the written report did not, some of which are spelled out in detail in my book. Suffice it to say, had a draft report been provided in advance—along with a draft of the press release—these things would have been caught by a competent crisis communicator.
But aside from that, who gave Freeh leave to hold his grandstanding news conference? I doubt anyone would want to take credit for that gaffe. The school—who, after all, hired and was paying Freeh—should have released the findings of the report, perhaps in a joint Erickson-Freeh press conference. But apparently the media spotlight was too tempting for Freeh and he did not give anyone a chance. (That’s what I mean by getting “a handle” on Freeh.)
Freeh completed his news conference in Philadelphia at 11:00 a.m., while the board was meeting on other matters in Scranton, PA, about 150 miles away. Yet without having the time to read, digest and/or question the report or its authors, the Board—in my view—arguably committed malfeasance when Erickson and Karen Peetz, newly minted chairwoman of the Board of Trustees at the time, issued a statement in which they said that the Board accepted Freeh’s report “unconditionally,” all the allegations it contained, and the more than 100 recommendations it proposed. The Board questioned nothing; it investigated nothing; it challenged nothing. The Penn State faithful can only be grateful that Freeh did not also accuse the school of complicity in the Lincoln assassination.
Many of the problems with the report that are surfacing now would have been caught before the report was made public, but the impotence of an ill-advised Board failed this important crisis task. Consequently, the universe has a badly skewed, negative image of a great university that will take years to eradicate.
Blunder No. 3: The NCAA. Penn State allowed itself to be bitch-slapped by the NCAA and its president, Mark Emmert, who I have described as a brass-knuckled bully.
The Board’s ill-conceived decision to accept the Freeh Report “unconditionally” gave Emmert and his henchmen carte blanche to rain a mountain of hurt on a badly-weakened university. Sanctions are one thing; what the NCAA did is known as “piling on.”
But consider: whatever mistakes the Board committed by accepting the Freeh Report, the school was still entitled to its day in NCAA court. Meaning, there should have been a formal investigation by the NCAA into any alleged transgressions at the school. Emmert stated publicly that he was side-stepping that standard and well-established operating procedure because the Board had unconditionally accepted the accusations in the Freeh Report. This was a huge error on the Board’s part to let that end-run scheme go unchallenged.
Here’s an analogy: Often in real life, a criminal trial is followed by a civil trial. Think O.J. Simpson or Michael Jackson. It is never the case that a defendant who has been found guilty in a criminal hearing will simply waive his legal rights by saying, “Well, since I was judged guilty in the criminal phase, I guess I’m also guilty in the civil phase; let’s skip that trial.” But that’s exactly what happened here.
Had the school lost its mind?
With more than 30 members sitting on the Board, weren’t there any lawyers there familiar with basic jurisprudence? Why didn’t the Board demand a separate NCAA investigation, to which they were entitled? Why did the Board accept this NCAA rush to judgment?
For the same reason they were accepting everything else: they thought the quicker they allowed their skin to be peeled back and flayed the quicker this torment would be over.
On the subject of the sanctions, I have a problem viewing the vacating of 111 football wins as anything other than punitive and mean-spirited, and having nothing to do with the actual reasons for the sanctions. The only people who suffer by this move are the student athletes, past and present, who are completely innocent of any improper actions. Their hard work on the gridiron has been eviscerated.
If the NCAA wanted to do something in that regard, they could have put an asterisk next to those victories in the record book. Explain history, don’t rewrite it. But the Board remained mute and completely ineffectual.
Pete Rose, who was banned for life from Major League Baseball from having gambled on games in which he was an active player and later manager, still holds the all-time record for hits: 4,256. He will never get into the Hall of Fame, but his record is an undisputed part of MLB history…until it is broken.
Next, Emmert said that Penn State had put football ahead of education, giving the erroneous impression to the world that all the school cared about was recruiting muscle-bound football players who had nothing between their ears, but who could help Paterno garner Ws on Saturdays in the fall. If the unenlightened Emmert had bothered to read his own NCAA website, he would have seen that Penn State’s GSR (Graduation Success Rate) for football players that year was a very impressive 87 percent—second in the Big Ten and tied with Stanford for 10th place nationally. Those statistics hardly qualify for the ridiculously unfounded charge of “putting football ahead of education.”
This is a common problem in high profile crises when people speak for sound bites rather than from facts.
But the Board never bothered to correct this erroneous accusation, which was easy enough to do. Was the Board so stunned and dazed by events that they didn’t think to correct such an inaccurate comment by the head of the NCAA? Inexcusable!
Finally, much has been made lately of the NCAA’s easing of some of the sanctions in light of a favorable compliance report by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who was hired by the NCAA to monitor Penn State’s clean up actions.
I don’t buy it.
I think the NCAA realized a long time ago that it went too far and established dangerous precedents that it was not prepared to defend going forward. The NCAA was looking for a way to back track, and the Mitchell Report gave them cover.
It is not easy to stand up to the NCAA, but the Board owed it to the school and to the vast Penn State community to stand up for the university.
Its abject failure to do so was one of the biggest crisis management blunders of all.