How can Penn State University rebuild its brand after Sandusky?
By Kathi Bentley
Reaching far beyond the world of college sports, the unfolding Penn State University scandal continues to play out before us. The latest in the many layers of this saga occurred when Penn State President Rodney Erickson ordered the iconic statue of the once-sainted football coach Joe Paterno to be taken down from outside the football stadium calling it “a source of division and an obstacle to healing.” His decision came 10 days after a scathing report by former FBI director Louis Freeh that found that Paterno and three other top Penn State administrators had concealed allegations of child sexual abuse made against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
This occurred the same day the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) announced it would levy severe penalties, described as “corrective and punitive” and already controversial in terms of the NCAA’s position in handing down such penalties. Then the big one. This morning (7/23/12) NCAA President Mark Emmert hammered the university with historic, jaw-dropping sanctions that effectively cripple the football program.
Like the proverbial scab that is picked off repeatedly before healing, each wound lengthens the recovery of this proud and legendary brand, Penn State University. (Full disclosure, I am an alumna of The Ohio State University, a fellow member of the Big Ten Conference.)
Moving forward… finally
An onslaught of commentary has been made over what should have transpired within the walls of the university prior to the story breaking lose last year. Although criminal and civil lawsuits will follow, the NCAA sanctions may be the last big shoe to fall and the communication definitely needs to focus on the future.
The question is what’s next for Penn State? How does the brand separate itself from the idolized JoePa, who for 46 years has been the face of everything related to the university? The process of attracting top caliber students and the best athletes for “Linebacker U” is an prevailing goal for a university known for both. How does this university focus strategy, and funding for that matter, on key messaging and brand integrity when it has spent more than $10 million with investigators, lawyers and public relations counsel on this scandal, was fined $60 million by the NCAA and will be looking at more financial loss as the victims file civil complaints. Prior to the NCAA fine, those costs were chump change for a famed football enterprise that brought in $53 million in profits last year according to Forbes Magazine, so that revenue alone is strong motivation to revive the brand. Of course the rebuilding task is much bigger than reviving the tarnished football program.
Crafting messages with a mission
Planning and executing any type of marketing or public relations program is clearly a challenging and delicate mission for an institution suffering the wounds to its reputation as this one has for many months. Key messages will be challenged if they speak to concepts that have become derisory in connection with Penn State. Safe? Well-respected? The best choice for your son or daughter?
The university must separate itself from the idolized JoePa who, for 46 years as the head coach, represented everything that was Penn State. First up for the administration is creating that separation and instituting credible damage control which began as soon as the verdict was announced. “The university plans to invite victims of Mr. Sandusky’s abuse to participate in a program to facilitate the resolution of claims against the university arising out of Mr. Sandusky’s conduct,” school president Rodney Erickson said in a statement released just after the 45 guilty verdicts against Sandusky were announced. He added that Penn State has taken a number of steps including donating $2.6 million to child abuse prevention efforts, new rules for supervising minors on its two dozen campuses, and employee training aimed at spotting and reporting child abuse.
These actions represent appropriate initial efforts to demonstrate what efforts are being implemented to assure this horrid scenario will not occur again. In conjunction with putting the outreach components into place, Penn State needs to look for opportunities to rebuild the pride and loyalty of its core stakeholders — alumni, students, parents, professors, major donors, coaches and employees of the university and of course the media.
To rebuild the brand, Penn State must develop an integrated solution and utilize a sustained communications approach. The university needs to understand the best communications channels — digital and traditional — and target the message to evolve the brand from tarnished to at least recovering. Standard advertising messages won’t find a place in the marketing plan this time.
Interestingly, donations to Penn State for the fiscal year just ended are the second highest in school history according to the Associated Press. The school noted there was an increase in donations by alumni, reversing two years of slight declines. Clearly, this base wants to assist in the recovery and will respond to financial and emotional appeals.
Communication on a personal level
As noted in The New Rules of Marketing & PR, those two worlds converge in online strategy for one set of new rules. Social media drove the story and should be utilized to speak to those who read the latest updates from Happy Valley for months. However because of the personal nature of the scandal, Penn State should communicate with the key constituency on a personal, individual level. Marketing efforts must make the multiple tiers of target audiences, beyond the distressed alumni, comfortable in identifying with the Penn State brand again.
The Harrisburg Patriot-News reported Sunday the impending NCAA sanctions against Penn State would not be appealed or “substantially challenged.” Focusing energy, effort and resources towards positive action rather than defending the past is the right course. Continuing to battle against the organization that governs it is self-destructive when so much work on restoration needs to be done.
Whether required by the NCAA or not, Penn State could create a plan of action that would include a self-orchestrated probation for an extensive period of time, perhaps indefinitely. A template of compliance could be developed that would put the university in the forefront of pro-active training and reporting. The establishment of an appropriate partnership against child abuse is a given. That could be accomplished with a newly created entity, although partnering with an established, well-respected organization would provide credibility more quickly. In simple terms, Penn State should strive to gain a level of credibility that will mark this scandal as the saga that changed Penn State for the better forever. Telling this reformation story to a skeptical world will be challenging and whether implemented effectively or disastrously will likely serve as fodder for college communications classes for years to come.
Erickson noted in an interview with the editors of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that it will probably be “more than a couple of years” before the university moves beyond the scandal. No question it will take some time before this wide-spread disgrace no longer defines the university. Rebuilding brand reputation is rarely a quick fix but this too shall pass. Our collective nano-second attention spans will aid that process. However, apparently a football team will take the field in September (with no “death penalty” from the NCAA) and the clock is ticking for Penn State to influence the conversation that will surround that milestone reminder of this story.
The priority for Penn State will be to stay committed to following the rules for effective marketing and public relations, craft the salient messages and utilize effective channels for communications to embrace and influence the target audiences. That will determine what “We are Penn State” means in the future.
These are only first steps and the scenario will be evolving for some time. How would you suggest the university tackle restoring its reputation and how long do you think it will take?