HOT Comms at PSU. Not!

Penn State University President Graham Spanier doubled down on PSU’s reputation gamble — and lost.

I’ve written before about the necessity for organizations to practice Honest, Open and Transparent Communications (HOT Comms).  It comes to mind again as we witness another allegation of leaders concealing the truth related to the child-abuse charges against former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

Graham Spanier, former PSU president
Graham Spanier, former PSU president

In this case, former Penn State president Graham Spanier has been charged with concealing child abuse.  I’m sure Spanier was thinking that keeping the public and his own board of trustees in the dark about allegations against Sandusky a decade ago would preserve his university’s reputation (and ability to capture donor dollars, ticket sales and student enrollment). In fact, it did the opposite. By hiding facts from the light of day, Spanier threw his university’s reputation onto the craps table alongside Sandusky’s.

The public would have understood and forgiven PSU had the truth come out because of the university’s actions, not despite them. There are legions of PSU faithful who continue to support the university even now; many more would be on the administration’s side had it acted with integrity and practiced HOT Comms.

With HOT Comms, it is important to remember that people see through b.s., so obfuscating with unclear language and “spin” is never a good option when communicating about an issue. Attempting to conceal it altogether isn’t a good idea, either, because eventually all “secrets” become known in this age of hyper-connectivity. Sharing information — good or bad — in a consistent, straightforward manner builds trust on the part of an organization’s key audiences.

Deliberately delaying the sharing of a “truth” or even an “allegation” basically tells people, when they find out (and they will) that you are dishonest and will place others at potential risk for monetary gain. Spanier’s concern for PSU’s reputation was about donor dollars, football ticket sales and enrollment numbers, plain and simple. Negative news might impact any of those categories by as little as 5%, costing PSU millions of dollars. But only for the short-term.

Penn State failed on many levels. It concealed damaging information and practiced numerous delaying strategies.  The world would have forgiven the university quickly had it acted promptly and honestly when issues first came to light. By doubling down and throwing their hat in with Sandusky, Spanier and other PSU administrators took a big gamble and lost.

Author: Robin

Communications professional with more than 25 years' expertise in PR, crisis communications, social media, community relations, marketing communications and more!

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