Honor, trust, and public relations

Penn State logo

Penn State logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was thinking about how one of the important purposes of marketing and public relations is to create and build trust among the people you want most to influence.

But, you can only amplify the possibility of trust when there is true merit behind it.  I have said this before, but no amount of public relations can cover up for a business or organization that does something truly wrong.

When you try to create trust in a product, brand, service, or person who does not deserve trust, that ceases to be marketing and public relations.  It becomes something else much less worthy.  Something akin to chicanery.

Last week, Richard Edelman addressed the Penn State trustees about their “Move Forward” plan.  The firm receives more than $200,000 a month in a retainer fee agreement for public relations services..

Edelman, as you may know, is the largest public relations firm in the world.  They also invented the Trust Barometer.  So they know a lot about trust and public relations.  I have admired much about their work.

He described what his firm intended to do to repair Penn State’s reputation as he presented the “Faces of Penn State” campaign.

“We have been playing defense for the last four or five months, since we’ve been engaged.  The Sandusky trial, the Freeh report, the NCAA sanctions — all of these have, you know, put us in a position of back foot. In a sense all we can do is be responsive in all those ways. Now is the time … to make the pivot.”

“The first Sandusky victim and those kinds of things are going to be a continuous stream.  The key point about reputation management is you cannot go into your tortoise shell and wait for things to change.”

I had three problems with the announcement.  First of all, I feel Penn State’s reputation should repair when it is merited, not by manipulation of the public’s perception by diverting focus away from the crimes to their academic programs.

Second, I think this kind of campaign is tremendously premature, and that there should be more focus on the real issues at hand.

Third, I was distressed by what appeared to be insensitivity to the gravity and pain of what transpired, and an inadequate acknowledgement of responsibility and contrition.  I believe a PR plan based on distraction may be perceived as a lack of  sensitivity for the gravity of these charges and the convictions.

Penn State doesn’t need the biggest PR agency in the world to tell people that they have a good academic program, because their academic program did not rupture their reputation. No one is going to forget that the President, Vice President and athletic director have been caught in lies with a “Faces” campaign.  Americans will see right through that ploy.

If Penn State wants to repair its damaged reputation with honor, they should admit their wrongdoing, make amends, and explain the steps they will take to reduce the risk of any other person being abused on their campus, or any wrongdoing from being reported.  That is what is going to make people start trusting Penn State again. The governance reporting mentioned was one part of that, but it was too small, and the other pieces — the offense plays they are referring to — are clearly taking precedence.  That’s just not honorable.

I do not hear a university that is contrite and feels responsible.  No one is going to be distracted by the fact that coaches and leaders at Penn State turned a blind eye to years of child abuse by the fact that one football player got a 4.0 in math.

Penn State is a football culture.  The trustees were completely focused on the upcoming football game and the reputation of their football team, and even did a “We are Penn State” cheer in the meeting.  Penn State paid its professors an average salary of $100,000/year and paid Coach Paterno more than $1,000,000/year.  But sticking blue ribbons for child abuse on football helmets does not say “We’re sorry, we acknowledge our fault, and it won’t happen again.”  Penn State trustee Al Clemens was talking about what “NCAA did to us,” as if the penalties were undeserved.   Sometimes I wonder if anybody at Penn State truly gets it.

One thing is certain: public opinion about Penn State has not swayed, not even in Pennsylvania.  In a poll of Pennsylvanians last month, the slight majority of respondents felt the NCAA penalties were fair or not severe enough, and 77% of the respondents agreed that athletic programs had taken too much precedence in university activities.  Eight Penn State football players, including two star performers, have transferred to other schools.

The second thing that is wrong with Edelman’s plan: it is too soon.  One trustee reiterated over and over, “Now is not the time to revisit the past.”  The past is now.  Graham Spanier was talking to the New Yorker two weeks ago, and claiming he knew nothing. Jerry Sandusky was convicted as sexually abusing ten boys on June 22.  That’s less than three months ago.  He hasn’t even been sentenced yet.  The Freeh report came out on July 12 and the NCAA sanctions were imposed on Penn State on July 23.  That’s less than two months ago.  There are other trials still pending against Penn State, as well as criminal charges of perjury against former university Athletic Director Timothy Curley and former university vice president Gary Schultz.  Victim #1 filed suit on August 24 against Penn State for “purposeful, deliberate and shameful subordination of the safety of children to its economic self-interests, and to its interest in maintaining and perpetuating its reputation.”  None of this is past.  None of this is going away anytime soon.

At least they wisely acknowledged that it was too soon for paid advertising.  But their PR plan is too obvious a distraction ploy.  I believe it may be perceived as a lack of  sensitivity for the gravity of these charges and the convictions.

The third problem I have with this announcement is its tone and language.  I have a real problem with Mr. Edelman dismissively referring to the victims of child abuse and sexual abuse as “those kinds of things.”   He also referred to the October Child Sexual Abuse Conference organized and hosted by Penn State as a venue to tell the good things about Penn State, making it pretty clear the event is basically a public relations tactic.

There is just no excuse for this.   There was the only a passing, glancing reference to what transpired on their campus. No mention was made about dealing with the fallout from the upcoming sentencing and court cases.  If anything, the discussion and plans presented revolved around how to shape the “one-year-later” story they feel will be all over the media in November.  That’s just not right.

Many people refer to public relations in a negative way, and maybe it’s easier to understand that after announcements like this.  I hope Penn State and Edelman choose to take the high road, and handle their future communications with more sensitivity for what has transpired, and the lives that have been damaged.

To watch the Edelman portion of this presentation, please fast forward the video to 2:04:10

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About Mary Fletcher Jones

Mary Fletcher Jones is a public relations and marketing consultant, and owns Fletcher Prince (www.FletcherPrince.com). Follow Mary on Twitter @FletcherPrince.

Posted on September 10, 2012, in Public Relations Tips and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Did anyone ever apologize? Say how incredibly wrong they were to ignore what was going on? Do something to try and repair the damage to those kids – even though it’s probably irreparable? Thank you for pointing out that some among us have integrity. I wish more did.

    • An apology is really two parts. First you admit wrongdoing and apologize. The second, more long-term part, is making amends. As you can see from this video above, there is no plan to make amends! For example, they are not making reparations to the victims. They are still complaining about the penalties. They are not talking about the safeguards they will take to protect children on campus. They took care of the embarrassing, cosmetic things — they removed Paterno’s statue, they renamed the Schultz child care center. They are talking about leveraging events for their PR value — even a child abuse conference! — to show the positive side of Penn State. Their “Move Forward” plan should be called the “Sweep This Under the Rug” plan.

      So to answer your question, see this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ldCOw9xAc1A where Ken Frazier (trustee, chairman, President and CEO of Merck) was head of special investigator task force speaks. Yes, they apologized. They apologized when they could no longer get away with NOT apologizing: when the Freeh report was released. So the Trustees apologized. With I don’t know how many qualifications. The men involved: Spanier, Schultz, Curley and others — they have not apologized. Joe Paterno did not apologize and his family denies the truth of the Freeh report.

      Again, this was ONLY 2 months ago. It’s like they think their job of apologizing is done and they can “move forward.” Ken Frazier doesn’t speak until 2:35 in this meeting you’ll notice. And what does he talk about? The one in charge of the special investigation? Promotion during the football game. Trying to prove how the football players are good students. It just brings home the fact that, as the Chronicle of Higher Education stated, Penn State has a “reverence for football was largely to blame for a series of missteps by top Pennsylvania State University administrators in failing to report repeated allegations of child sex abuse by Jerry Sandusky, according to the Freeh Report.” That SAME reverence that led them to cover up the sex scandal is now interfering with their ability to distance themselves and see what would be honorable and appropriate now — and they have bascially constructed a “new” cover-up campaign — this one with PR — also based on football. It’s a damn shame.

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