Friday, July 13

Keeping Secrets: Penn State Officials Feared Publicity

As the story was breaking last year, I joined a handful of public relations professionals who pointed out that the Penn State scandal was not a public relations case study. The remedy was early ethics.

What has become more clear, however, is that public relations is easily brought into the discussion because of its influence over behavior. A fear of bad publicity prompted the Penn State coverup.

In doing so, Joe Paterno and top Penn State officials hushed up child sex abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky, allowing the former assistant football coach to prey on other youngsters for another decade, according to a scathing report issued Thursday on the scandal. They wanted to protect Penn State.

Public relations is not the art of spin, secrets, or cover-ups. 

While some practitioners think public relations can do those things (those who mistake public relations for propaganda), the ethical practice is obliged to do the opposite. It seeks the truth and then communicates any findings in a responsible, forthright, and empathetic way fosters understanding (why it happened) and addresses mitigation (what will happen now). That is all that can be done.

Some people call it common sense. But sometimes professionals, executives, and officials seem to be in short supply of common sense. If it was in abundance, they would appreciate that proper public relations seeks a mutually beneficial relationship between organizations and their publics, even when the organization or individuals in the organization have violated trust.

Ergo, truth rectifies or otherwise minimizes maleficence. More malfeasance only exacerbates it, even if it postpones the inevitable. All the while, victims and future victims suffer for it in silence. And all the while, more and more people are directly and indirectly harmed as the lie spreads like a virus.

Proper public relations is different. Rather than sweep organizational shame under the rug, it brings the truth to light. Sure, there will be consequences. Over the long term, any organization that is able to uncover a problem, isolate its cause, and establish preventative measures to ensure it will not happen again, will minimize the damage and (sometimes) earn the trust and respect of those involved.

The analogy might be trivial, but the error in judgement is not.

You know you are an idiot public relations practitioner (in title or practice) when you could have learned this lesson watching a single episode of The Brady Bunch. And one of them fits here.

In the episode called "Goodbye, Alice, Hello," Peter and Greg were playing Frisbee in the house. Like many children have learned over the years, something always gets broken eventually. In this case, an antique lamp. Greg and Peter vow to fix the lamp and ask Alice to keep their secret.

Alice eventually has to break her vow because she refuses to lie to her boss, Carol, and the kids learn that cover-ups carry additional costs. Although they later chastise Alice for being "a snitch" and she quits, even that turns out to be problematic. People who become part of an extended family are not so easily replaced and Alice becomes the hero of the episode.

The officials who covered up the Penn State scandal could have been heroes too. But they must have missed this particular episode. And everything they thought they gained during the cover-up is now diminished or lost outright. You can read the Penn State response here. But more importantly, try to remember that public relations, much like human decency, begins and ends with truth and trust, not cover-ups.
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