A PR Director’s Perspective on Penn State’s Crisis Management

Several thoughts come to mind as I sit on the sideline watching the ongoing child-sex scandal at Penn State University unfold and systematically erode what was once an “untouchable” reputation.  I am saddened and disgusted by reports of the despicable crimes and for the obvious character flaws in the many individuals who turned a blind eye and chose an institution over the safety of children.  While the circumstances are different, the scandal brings back the days I sat at the center of a public relations crisis as the director of communications for a school district rocked by the superintendent’s unethical and criminal behavior.  15 years of media experience, solid preparation and inner strength were my saving grace.

As I watched the Penn State Board of Trustees’ news conference announcing the firing of Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier, I felt invigorated.  Not only because the University was taking a step in the right direction, but also because Board of Trustee Vice Chairman John Surma did a fantastic job in leading and controlling the message.  Believe me, sitting in “that seat” is enough to rattle the most confident of nerves.

Mr. Surma delivered his message in a clear and decisive manner.  With the exception of a few minor facial grimaces, he never lost his composure.  He stayed focused and did a remarkable job of bridging back to his main message and the job he had to do. When he didn’t have an answer, he said so – no apology needed. He was in control, right down to the last two questions he allowed.

Nicely done John Surma.

Watch the full press conference