Penn State Scandal: How to Handle Media When Crisis Hits

Learning From The Penn State Scandal: Handling The Media In A Crisis

In the age of Facebook, managing media relations is more important than ever, especially when media attention results from something or someone gone wrong — for example, the Penn State scandal. With news released in a matter of seconds thanks to social media and online news alerts, individuals and companies must respond quickly.

When the news broke about Penn State, in an instant we saw news reporters swarm the  campus, and journalists camped outside of coach Joe Paterno’s home. As the nation sat on the sidelines watching the story unfold, almost every news station and newspaper across the country had it covered. The University’s failure to respond with a statement, even days after the grand jury indictment of Jerry Sandusky, left social media buzzing and news reporters to speculate about what Penn State officials and, more specifically, coach Paterno knew and did.

The story is horrific and has impacted the lives and careers of many, which may not have been salvageable, given their failure to speak up in 2002. Yet there is still much we can learn from the errors of Penn State and coach Paterno when it comes to dealing with the press and damage control.

1.    Be upfront
When crisis strikes, don’t hide or engage in finger pointing. Assign a public face to address the problem at hand, specifically the CEO, company president or another top executive spokesperson. Have them meet with key targeted media outlets to explain the issues and what management plans to do about it. Follow through and provide updates with promises to rebuild credibility and deliver them.

2.    Say it straight
Keep your internal and external communications simple, direct and frequent so that everyone is kept informed of your progress. Let the public know your side of the story; be positive and proactive.

3.    Involve the team
In a crisis, situation control is essential, but keeping discussions behind closed doors can be more damaging. Keep employees in the loop, alerting them to what is going on, and how they need to communicate to customers and the public. Getting past the damage takes a team effort.

4.    Get your message out quickly
Utilize your website, blog and social media handles to help spread the word. In addition to sending out a news release statement, take to online to control the message and clarify misinformation. This also helps push out new content on Google, burying old news.

5.    Monitor and respond
Keep tabs on what others are posting and saying online. Follow up with editors, journalists and bloggers; make your spokesperson available, answer questions, and clear up the misconceptions.

6.    Turn a negative into a positive
If someone in the organization made a mistake, admit the wrong doing and make it right. If the company is incorrectly accused of a wrong doing, educate the public and lead by example.

When a crisis hits, the damage from negative publicity can be felt for quite some time. By taking a proactive approach and putting together a communication plan that allows you to tell the story, the situation can often be rectified. In the case of Penn State, only time will tell.