Crisis mismanagement: Penn State and UVA

During the Grunig Lecture Series V, there were many Public Relations Professionals in attendance that included, David Almacy and Judith Phair, both whom discussed the crises at Penn State and UVA this past year.

David Almacy, a senior vice president in Public Affairs at Edelman’s DC location, discussed both cases and how each school was poorly prepared for the social media onslaught after news broke of the scandals.  In the case of Penn State, the school was met with a crisis management nightmare when the truth came out about Jerry Sandusky and an alleged cover up among Joe Paterno, head football coach at the time, as well as the Athletic Director and other school administrators. Almacy described the three most important questions for Edelman, as well as Penn State, to answer before they were fully prepared to come out to the public. Those questions were: What happened? Who knew about it? And what’s being done to fix it?

Almacy also discussed why Penn State was not prepared for the social media attack it faced as Edelman found Penn State was not really on social media. This created a problem for the school as social media is easily accessible to the surrounding public and when a school like Penn State is involved with its community, they are more likely to get support from that community when a crisis like this happens. He discussed how UVA was in a similar predicament as they were not even remotely prepared for the reaction of the public when the university president was fired. The primary lessons to come out of both of these crises are:

  1. Silence is not a strategy. Laying low can often be more damaging than being involved because if you aren’t saying anything then others will start to fill the void. In that case, the schools would be double behind.
  2. Building channels within the community ahead of time would help the community to become an advocate on your behalf before, during and after the crisis.

Judith Phair, the president and founder of PhairAdvantage Communication, LLC , focused on Penn State’s reactions, or lack thereof, as soon as the scandal broke and  up until now. The main point Phair made was that in most universities, Penn State included, the sports program is almost a separate entity from the rest of the school. The problem with that is that the schools PR team was not prepared for the crisis and was playing catch up the whole time. This was probably one of the reasons why Penn State was slow in communicating with the public as they themselves were not entirely sure or prepared to deal with the media until they knew everything.

The question you have to ask is, why didn’t Penn State or UVA have a solid plan in place that dealt with these types of crises? Unfortunately, we will never know the answer to that question. What we do know is that both schools will be looking into developing a crisis management plan for any future crises they will face.


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