by Steve Adubato, PhD
We received dozens of e-mails in response to last week’s column on the leadership and crisis communication failures of Penn State in connection with the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Here is a sampling of what readers had to say:
John Kosko from Verona is a 1992 graduate of Penn State and wrote the following; “…It turns out that ‘JoePa’ and Joe Paterno are in fact two different entities. ‘JoePa’ is the guy we saw patrolling the sidelines all those years…The guy that defied the odds by leading the program for 46 years… But who was Joe Paterno? The simple answer: I HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA. Despite the public persona of ‘JoePa’, very few know the answer to that question. The Freeh Report revealed a description of the man that was in conflict with what we thought and believed, and more importantly wanted him to be. Whether it's athletes, musicians, or movie stars, it is important to realize that the image we see is not necessarily the actual person.”
Your point is well taken, John. However, even though the Penn State public relations operation worked hard to bolster the public reputation of Joe Paterno, much of that positive reputation was well-deserved. He did encourage his athletes to work hard in school. He did contribute a lot of money to the school and helped build the school’s library. But none of that compares to the leadership failure on his part in the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Diane Checchio from Green Brook is the mother of a Penn State student and was “disturbed” by my comment regarding students not wanting to wear a Nittany Lions sweatshirt. Said Checchio; “This has been a difficult time for my daughter and her friends who attend Penn State, as well as us parents. They too are innocent victims who are trying to come to grips with what happened to their school…The actions and inactions of a few individuals, plus the hype of the media, has destroyed the integrity of the university. People don't take into consideration the innocent students, parents, faculty, athletes and administrators who had nothing to do with this situation. Penn State is a great University that people should be proud of.”
Much of what you say is true, Diane. However, when leaders fail at a major institution like Penn State, there are consequences that are experienced by many, including innocent students. That is the nature of institutional leadership. Further, many would question whether it was the “hype of the media” that helped destroy the integrity of the university. It is the role of the media to highlight and expose institutional failures. The alternative of underplaying this story is unacceptable.
Robert L. from Branchburg said; “Your recent article provides a powerful reminder to the leaders of all organizations, not just businesses, of the dangers of actively concealing criminal conduct in a mistaken effort to protect the organization…However, it missed a very significant point, specifically, the corrective actions taken by Penn State once the scope of the harm became apparent. While they can’t undo the terrible harm committed by Jerry Sandusky, the University has recognized the mistakes made and has taken steps so healing can begin…Other institutions could take a lesson from how Penn State has responded.”
The alternative, Robert, would be to fight the NCAA and the Freeh Report in a futile effort to quibble over the nuance of this embarrassing scandal. That is not a productive option for any serious organization looking to move forward from a crisis of this magnitude. The slate can never be wiped clean when there has been so much pain and suffering. However, a commitment can be made to acknowledge ones failures and promise to rectify and do better in the future. That is all any individual or organization can do.