Paterno family implements a flawed PR strategy flawlessly

The family of Joe Paterno engaged in a media blitz this week in an effort to convince people that the Penn State sexual abuse report by ex-FBI director Louis Freeh was inaccurate when it said that Joe-Pa was part of the cover-up.  First the family released its own report, titled “Critique of the Freeh Report: The Rush to Injustice Regarding Joe Paterno,” which lambasts the Freeh report and its accusations against the venerated Penn State football coach. Next, Paterno family members signed themselves up for as many media television and radio talk shows as they could. I heard Jay Paterno several times and found him to be articulate, very sympathetic and earnest about what he called the facts. For a few days, Paterno once again was one of the two or three news stories dominating media coverage.

All in all, the Paternos and their attorneys and public relations counselors did a stellar job of implementing their PR plan.  From the technical standpoint of controlling the media and articulating a set of messages, it was a flawless execution of strategy.

Too bad they didn’t think through the strategy first, because it was wrong.

First of all, it was wrong from the ethical standpoint. The Paternos created another news cycle of stories, thereby inflicting another cycle of pain on the dozens of damaged boys and men victimized by the monster Sandusky.

Let’s assume, though, we’re talking about a business decision only, and not an ethical one. A business decision focuses solely on what’s best for the business (and not the collateral damage that might be inflicted on others). In this case the business is the Joe Paterno legacy and the money that the Paterno family can make from it. From the business standpoint, it was a terrible decision, ranking among the worst since the chairman of BP pretended not to have facts about a disastrous oil spill that as head of the company he should have had or when the chairman of Mylan Inc. claimed that a Federal Drug Administration (FDA) investigation was completed even after the FDA said it wasn’t.

It was just plain stupid for the Paternos to think that releasing an obviously partisan report would move people to exonerate Paterno. If the Paternos had engaged me as their PR counsel, I would have told them to shut up and do nothing for the time being because whatever they said would only make people believe more ardently what they currently believe about the scandal. We won’t know for certain until someone does a legitimate survey, but early reaction in the media suggests that the Paterno plan did fail:  While ardent Paterno supporters have rallied behind the report, those convinced by the Freeh report are criticizing the Paternos, although always with a great deal of respect.

It’s something I call the “mirror” effect, when the new facts or new point of view do nothing but convince people of what they already believed. The new information in a sense holds a mirror up to the people consuming the information. What people see in the mirror is themselves—or to be more specific, their point of view.

Unless the Paternos’ report had showed that Freeh lied or neglected to include exonerating facts, it was bound to have a mirror effect on the public. Too much has already been written and opined on the subject.  Media saturation has already cast in stone both the facts and the way that most people are reacting.

Not only did the Paternos’ PR campaign probably not convince anyone  (or convinced very few) of Joe-Pa’s innocence, it created an additional news cycle, so for one more time, the news media preoccupied itself with the horrible scandal. That can’t help Joe-Pa’s reputation or Penn State’s (even if we forget about the victims).

In any crisis situation, we look for a key fact that pretty much sums up the argument the client wants to make. For example, years ago we had to close down a large factory in a small town and expected trouble from elected officials and problems with the workers. As it turned out, if all the employees of the division had worked for free during the prior two years, the company would have still lost money. That was the key fact we told everyone, and what could have been harsh criticism disappeared. Everyone had the common sense to understand that the business was just not viable.

In the Penn State child abuse situation, the key fact is the conversation that Joe-Pa had with his assistant Mike McQueary in which McQueary told the head coach he caught Sandusky with a boy in the showers. Paterno kicked the matter to the administration and then neglected to follow-up aggressively to see what was being done.

No matter how hard the Paterno family tries, they can’t get away from that key fact, which establishes that Joe-Pa was culpable.  But that key fact also limits the extent of Paterno’s culpability. No matter what the truth really was, his guilt is tied to the one act (really several acts bundled into one) of not following up on the McQueary accusation.

As time goes by, the public is going to remember fewer of the details of the Sandusky scandal. Paterno’s involvement, tied up as it is in the one action, will seem less terrible, especially when compared to Sandusky’s and perhaps several high-ranking Penn State administrators.  Over time, the football-loving public would weigh Joe-Pa’s legendary reputation and won-loss record against this one (terrible) mistake. Paterno would (and probably still will) end up to be revered as a great, if flawed man. That may not help the current Paterno business franchise today, but nothing can help the current reputation of Joe Paterno except time.

The impatient and seemingly insensitive Paterno family would have been better off letting the sleeping dog lie.


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