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Marmillion Op-Ed: Universities and Colleges Need to Learn from Unfolding Penn State Crisis
Home » Breaking News » Marmillion Op-Ed: Universities and Colleges Need to Learn from Unfolding Penn State Crisis

Penn State Fumbled
By Val Marmillion


Despite example after example that it’s the wrong course to take, crisis decisions are too often made in secretive, locked-down confines. And, inevitably, emotion and egos trump professionalism and crisis turns into chaos.

The news out of Penn State this week, which turned Happy Valley upside down, felled—in a matter of two days—the nation’s winningest football coach, along with his college president, athletic director, and controlling officer of campus police. It didn’t have to come to this.

Until those 48 hours, the university and those who now no longer work for it, had a sterling reputation. Like the football team, it was revered: strong, steady and a model for others to follow. To the outsider, this perception was reality. But soon, on the inside, those tarnished by this tragedy would realize that from small places, enormous stories and legends grow.

From a communications perspective, did Penn State do everything wrong? Yes. Arrogance was profound in not understanding that the bigger the monolith, including Mount Nittany, the harder the fall. By not having professional procedures in place, canceling press conferences, speaking off the cuff, relying on defense rather than integrity and offense, the actions of those in charge kept fueling public suspicions when word began to leak.

There are communications lessons here throughout the ordeal that deserves the attention of everyone entitled with a public trust. At the start, in a classic case of failure to understand the potential crisis, the university president said that the mounting story was not true.  Then, at the end, the biggest announcement in the history of college sports came from a Board of Trustees that did more to engender distrust with awkwardness. The spokesperson for the board, a Fortune 500 CEO, fumbled and was intercepted by a crushing media.  The sad picture of an aging legend with a sorrowful wife late at night on the steps of their home against the backdrop of student unrest dispelled belief that honor and dignity framed the traditions of Penn State.

What should Penn State have done? First, it’s important that universities, like big corporations, have in place a communications plan and allow it to be run by professionals who understand and care about the reputation of the institution. Allowing an official embroiled in a controversy to make decisions clouded by his or her personal involvement will never work in the best interest of that entity.

Second, being transparent and setting up systems so that the public hears from those they trust is critical. The public wants to know they are getting answers to the questions they want asked.

Universities have a tough lesson to learn.  Along with the money and fame that follows high profile college coaches and athletes, comes the responsibility to maintain high ethical standards needed to protect an academic institution’s reputation, because after all, if not for the university, there are no teams.

From Paterno on up the line, the Penn State leadership had a responsibility to report allegations that crimes had been committed; then they had an obligation to inform a nation that included the school’s own students, faculty, alumni, donors and fans of the truth in a timely and unbiased manner.

The sad truth is, Penn State officials needed a communications playbook just like they expect their coaches to have, and without one, they fumbled on one down after another.

College athletics continues to gain power and shape the face of storied institutions in the U.S., and the same professionalism that shapes sports warriors must be applied to handling the ball when it comes to facing the American public.


Val Marmillion is chairman of Marmillion + Company strategic communications, winner of three top national communications awards and with colleagues, former sports journalist Gene Rose and former LSU Associate Athletic Director, Rannah Gray, provide crisis communications counsel to clients. Val can be reached at vam@mcopr.com.