Monday, November 14

Applying Ethics: Penn State Is Not A PR Story

Bill Sledzik is right. The Penn State scandal is not really a public relations case study. It can't be "fixed." The only thing left to do is continue to cooperate with transparency and suggest remedies to minimize such atrocities from happening again.

Attorney General Linda Kelly described it precisely: "This is a case about a sexual predator who used his position within the university and community to repeatedly prey on young boys. It is also a case of high-ranking university officials who allegedly failed to report the sexual assault of a young boy after the information was brought to their attention, and later made false statements to a grand jury that was investigating a series of assaults on young boys."

Any potential for this case to remain within the sphere of public relations ended in 2002. And even then, the only thing that could be done would have been to advise that the incident be immediately brought to the attention of the police regardless of potential public relations fallout. That was almost 10 years ago.

There are two worthwhile discussion points: understanding ethics and bystander psychology. 

Neither Mike McQuery, who witnessed the child rape firsthand, nor head football coach Joe Paterno should have been satisfied with the decisions reportedly made by then athletic director Tim Curley or senior vice president for finance and business Gary Schulz (who also oversaw campus police).

The ethical course for McQuery is clear. He should have intervened. Or if he felt the intervention put his life at risk, he should have immediately called the police. Instead, he reportedly turned to an authority figure, his father, and subsequently Paterno. While the behavior is understandable from a psychological viewpoint, it doesn't make it right. Personal, moral, and ethical responsibility cannot be so simply surrendered by a bystander to higher authorities, even at the risk of an early career.

Likewise, the same applies to Paterno. Once it was brought to his attention, there ought to have been no question of how to proceed. While notifying Curley and indirectly Schulz of the situation would have been acceptable, the only personal, moral, and ethical course would be to report the incident to police or insist that Curley and Schulz do so.

They did not. Instead, Curley and Schulz made the wrong decision when it was brought to their attention, apparently to keep the incident from going public while trying to distance the school from future liability in the event Arthur "Jerry" Sandusky was caught again. Eventually, when the incident surfaced during testimony, concern for public exposure quickly turned to protecting themselves from criminal liability, as it often does.

If the crime did not involve the public safety of a victim (such as lying to the media about something more trivial), then the appropriate course of action could have been to confront the wrongdoer and give them an opportunity to come forward and correct their mistake (and reporting it only if they are unwilling to do so). But any time there is an immediate threat to the public safety of one or more people, there is no obligation to grant the wrongdoer any such courtesy. You stop it. You report it.

What public relations professionals need to know about the Penn State scandal.

It is not uncommon for public relations professionals, especially those in the early stages of their careers, to be asked to lie, spin, or exaggerate on behalf of companies. And, more commonly, some will attempt to exempt themselves from responsibility after passing information to an authority figure. Don't do it.

If this case can teach students anything, it is that attempting to cover up an atrocity (regardless of size) doesn't protect anyone. It only makes everyone who knows liable for a lifetime and anyone who doesn't know another potential victim. And yes, once you know, the suffering of those victims falls squarely on your shoulders, as rightly conveyed by Attorney General Kelly.

"The failure of top university officials to act on reports of Sandusky's alleged sexual misconduct, even after it was reported to them in graphic detail by an eyewitness, allowed the predator to walk free for years - continuing to target new victims," Kelly said. "Equally disturbing is the lack of action and apparent lack of concern among those same officials, and others who received information about this case, who either avoided asking difficult questions or chose to look the other way."

Partial source: grand jury presentment, Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General.
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