When two of the three news stories on your university's own homepage involve steps the university is taking to address sexual abuse, you know you have a PR problem on your hands. When your university's highlight video, allotted each school during football games, features your president talking candidly about the steps the university if taking to address sexual assault, you definitely have a PR problem. And what a problem Penn State has.
The ongoing Penn State scandal, in which the school is accused of covering up the long term sexual abuse of minors by then-assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, is working its way to being a guaranteed case study in every PR, marketing, education and MBA program in the nation. But is the light at the end of the tunnel already appearing?
Perhaps the biggest external sign that Penn State is facing a huge branding problem is in-game commercials, as illustrated at top. While most schools run glowing portraits of their campuses, academic offerings and accomplishments, Penn State can't point to its storied run under now-fired football coach Joe Paterno, but has been reduced to putting forward a sobering message from its president. It's just the beginning of all the steps the school is taking to, at this stage, reroute the narrative of its Happy Valley campus as a site for detestable, covered-up criminal activity.
Penn State is trying to think of every angle. It has pledged $1.5 million from its football bowl game profits to sex-crimes advocacy organizations. The student newspaper has (temporarily) pulled its popular sex column called "Mounting Nittany." And on Nov. 30, the university held a town hall where students were allowed to grill administrators about the scandal.
Penn State has even gone so far to protect itself that it "bought up Internet domain names to block school trademarks being used by the porn industry." That this purchase of .xxx domains came before the story even broke confirms how acutely aware (some might say paranoid) the university was about the reach of the impending scandal about to hit its Ivory tower. (It's a reputation and brand protection move so Machiavellian some saw it as sleazy.)
However, with each step forward, new developments keep the grimmest aspects of the story alive.
A new lawsuit by the latest accuser against Sandusky (who, let the record show, is maintaining his innocence) alleges a shocking 100 instances of abuse over a period of years. And then, another lawsuit came a day later, from a new victim. This came following a very public interview the coach gave with Bob Costas during which Sandusky came across as very, very guilty.
Then, just when Penn State may have hoped the story was falling off the front page, another criminal sex scandal at Syracuse University blew up. At Syracuse, another assistant coach, Bernie Fine, on the school's high profile basketball team was accused of similar sexual impropriety. This offered newspapers the chance to write headlines such as "Syracuse, Penn State sex abuse scandals have much in common" (and other media to bash ESPN's handling of the story). Penn State administrators cannot catch a break
Of course, Penn State is remaining focused on the long term. Karen Post, author of the new book Brand Turnaround: How Brand Gone Bad Returned to Glory, believes Penn State can bounce back: "The court of public opinion knows that the accused is an individual who allegedly acted badly. While it appears others in the organization made a series of bad judgments too, with time and publicized demonstrations of new and enforced policies around both the legal and moral obligations of leadership and school the brand will be back." Post points to examples from her book such as Exxon and Michael Vick.
Finally, this week, Penn State was able to highlight a bit of good news. According to Penn State's president, applications to attend the university are up this year. Better yet, "Of the 40,000 undergraduate applications received, only eight have withdrawn their applications" since the Sandusky scandal broke.
Meanwhile, just because a PR agency isn't handling Penn State's crisis doesn't mean it can't leverage it for a little attention.
Axiom Consulting Partners put out a press release advertising "5 Ideas to Protect Your Company from a Potential ‘Penn State Problem’." These suggestions include "Establish a confidential whistleblower hotline" and "Reexamine the company’s code of ethics and professional conduct."
Not on Axiom's list? "Immediately fire people who are revealed to be pedophiles." Not sure if they're innocent or guilty? "Call the police."