Not Another Penn State Story

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Posted At: September 11, 2012 7:30 A.M.
by Kristin Nelson

For the first time in its 125-year history, Penn State University football players are wearing jerseys with their names across the back.
That’s not the only addition to their traditionally unadorned blue-and-whites. The players’ helmets now feature a blue ribbon on the back to support the victims in the Sandusky child abuse scandal. These simple changes are one way that Penn State is trying to remove itself from past traditions and shortcomings.

But haven’t we heard enough about Penn State? The news coverage over the past few months was overwhelming. What happened at Penn State was inexcusable — a horrible situation. The only thing left to do is stop dwelling on things of the past and move forward.

That’s why Penn State hired Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm, to restore its reputation. Those of us in the field of public relations can benefit by studying and monitoring Edelman’s plan for restoration. This has been one of the biggest crises in sports history. The way Penn State recovers can teach us all a thing or two about crisis management. So let’s take a look at the plan for recovery.

In the name of transparency, the Penn State board of trustees meetings are posted on YouTube. Richard Edelman presented the plan for recovery at a meeting on August 26, 2012. The plan was built by consensus with committees from the board and from Edelman’s team. I will focus on a few key points.

Edelman began by explaining that the world has changed in the past 10 years. People no longer trust presidents and CEOs. They trust academics, experts and “a person like you.” The public doesn’t value performance and leadership as much as it values transparency and communication.

“You cannot go into your tortoise shell and wait for things to change,” Edelman said.

In light of that, he presented a four-part plan:

  1. Research: Message tests have been and will be performed periodically to monitor the public’s perception of Penn State. A baseline test was performed when Edelman was first hired. An update will be carried out soon, and another in December.
  2. Activate: The Penn State family will play a major role in restoring the reputation of the University. Edelman’s restoration plan depends on an “Inside-Out Approach,” which requires students, faculty, alumni and third-party allies to tell their stories. They will become the new “Faces of Penn State.” They will be featured on posters, the Web and videos during football games. Distinguished, active individuals will tell how they are still involved at Penn State and are achieving great things.
  3. Engage: Transparency is the key here. Penn State governance will open all doors. The Presidential Search Committee will be open and accessible. A new annual report will be required, called the Penn State Governance Report, which keeps track of all corporate social responsibility efforts. Also, there are key influencers whom all national media outlets contact for information on Penn State. Those people must be contacted with new, positive information in order to shape future news stories and show that Penn State is making progress. Edelman listed a few of those influencers in various outlets and explained how important it is to find an ally in nearly every field, from sports to technology to education.
  4. Amplify: Penn State needs to “tell the good news stories.” The university will begin by initiating a new campaign called #PSUserves. By using the hashtag, it will be able to aggregate all service initiatives into one place. #PSUserves will be used as a website, on social media, and in other outlets. It will become a banner for the positive things Penn State is doing and a way to track the conversation about those positives.

In summary, Edelman said it’s time for Penn State to get on the offensive side of the conversation.

“It’s time that this proud university begins to tell its story again,” he said.

So you better get used to hearing about Penn State. Thankfully, it’s not going away.

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