For days the sexual abuse scandal broke, Penn State University did not put forward a single human being – leadership or spokesperson -- to answer questions from media and the public.
This breaks every rule of modern crisis communications. As an institution, Penn State knows this. The university is home to the prestigious Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communications. It has a College of Communications.
It puts on conferences on crisis communications, like the one in 2009 where an expert told agriculture people that speed of response is critical to maintaining credibility and trust (picture). There's also a 2006 Penn State draft crisis communications plan floating around the Internet.
So what happened?
How did Penn State make its situation far worse by violating one of the most basic tenets of crisis management?
We can assume that its crisis plan doesn't have a section titled, "Allegations of Sexual Abuse of a Minor By An Official and Related Perjury Or Inaction By Other Officials Who Had Information." Or maybe there are guidelines but those went out the window when the president promised "unconditional support" for two of the people involved. Maybe the board was never coached in how to use the plan. Maybe they've never seen a crisis plan at all.
Perhaps lawyers convinced the university to hunker down. Or maybe somebody thought any backlash from stonewalling the press would be mitigated by whatever action they're planning to take. Maybe it's happening too fast. Maybe there's lack of consensus.
Hard to say.
All we know is that Penn State has taken the position to not address the public in real time.
Make no mistake about it. Penn State's communications is a crisis in and of itself, one that will add months of life and millions of dollars to the situation. People are going to lose their jobs.
The lesson here is not that your company or university needs a crisis communications plan.
The lesson from Penn State is that your crisis plan is useless if it hasn't established how you will respond to situations nobody saw coming. That includes horrible acts and cover-up by people in positions of trust.
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