This blog is hard for me to write. The Jerry Sandusky scandal is so revolting; I can barely read the ongoing news coverage. However, this story is too big to ignore, especially from a public relations and media perspective.
Penn State’s reputation is ruined. For years to come, the school will be associated with Sandusky, his unconscionable actions and the administration’s laissez-faire attitude toward the whole ordeal (until now, that is). A rule of thumb in PR is, “If the public thinks you have a problem, you have a problem.” So how does the rule apply if you know you have a problem, and the public is unaware? Apparently if you’re Penn State, it doesn’t.
To be fair, very few Penn State officials had knowledge of the allegations against Sandusky. But all it takes is one person to do the right thing, and none of them did. Now, they’re trying to make up for it by cleaning house. But no matter who they fire or place on administrative leave, it won’t undo any of the damage caused by Sandusky or those who failed to come to the defense of the victims.
I read the first few pages of the grand jury presentment and couldn’t go any further. It literally made my stomach churn. I’m aware we live in a sensationalist society, but the media coverage of the scandal has disappointed me. I was horrified when I saw major news outlets reporting the exact, graphic details of the case I was trying to avoid. Specifically, when the grad student walked in on Sandusky and the young boy in the shower.
I’m not easy to offend, and I’m certainly not a prude, but there’s a time and place for sensitivity and tact. This is it. Instead of explicitly stating what was occurring between Sandusky and the boy, I personally believe a general euphemism would have been a more responsible road to take as a journalist. Refer to it as a “sexual act” and leave it at that. The case has enough shock value on its own. For the people who want the details, they’ll be able to find them.
But the media isn’t the villain here; Sandusky holds that dishonor. Penn State also shares some of the shame, and I don’t envy the people employed on their public relations team. There’s no forgiveness for allowing a crime to go unpunished for more than a decade. The statements released so far by the administration have been appropriate, but it’s like trying to use a wine cork to replace the Hoover Dam. It will never be enough. At this point, the university just needs to prepare itself for what the future holds.
Moody’s, the credit ratings agency, is considering downgrading Penn State’s rating. I’m sure the university will lose a huge amount of funding in the next year as well. It will be interesting to see the size of their freshman class come Fall 2012. I know if I were a parent, my child would be going somewhere else.