The shocking report by Special Investigator and former FBI Director Louis Freeh on the conduct of Penn State University officials during the buildup to the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal demonstrates how a slow, hidebound institutional culture and chain of command can exacerbate a crisis to disastrous proportions. The lesson learned? It’s what our mother always told us at the kitchen table…once you know something is terribly wrong, hiding your head in the sand will make it way harder when the bad news is revealed.
As crisis communications counselors, we at CommCore always remind our clients that transparency – internally as well as externally – is paramount in effective reputation management. However, as we see at Penn State, transparency just wasn’t in their culture. One can’t always predict a lawsuit, though Penn State officials should have considered the possibility because they knew for years they were dealing with eyewitness accounts and not rumors. But this situation illustrates a couple of key points:
· An institutional culture ruled by fear that public exposure of any wrong-doing will cause loss of money or status will likely paralyze a chain of command, as appears to have happened here.
· Acting transparently, early and decisively on hard information at hand means a reputation may be sullied, but has a chance to be vindicated in the long run.