Penn State’s PR Disaster

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By Jenna Charles, Intern, R&J Public Relations

I go to Penn State. As soon as I mention that lately, a game of twenty questions ensues. How do you feel about it? What’s the atmosphere? Have you thought about transferring? Now, anyone asking these questions clearly does not understand the meaning of the “WE ARE…PENNSTATE” chant. Because if they did, they would know that my love for all things Penn State, Joe Paterno and Nittany Lion will never waver. My reasoning is simple, really — the minute my oldest brother committed to Penn State for lacrosse, my six-year-old self decided that it was the best place in the world. When my next brother chose Penn State as well, it only cemented my decision. Seventeen-year-old me tried to put off the inevitable pattern of following-suit, but come freshman year of college, I was studying in the happiest of valleys.

This past year, my world turned upside down, just like that of every other Penn Stater. Our school, with lines of the alma mater extolling “may no act of ours bring shame, to one heart that loves thy name, thou didst mold us dear old state,” was suddenly shamed, confused and embarrassed.  Unsettling facts were being thrown out from every direction, news vans covered the campus, and countless stories recounted terrible details. While our hearts were breaking, the world’s eyes were on us, judging our responses and debating who did what and how they should best be punished. However, there is one fact that everyone can agree on: Penn State’s public relations department seemed to have disappeared.

Keeping my head up, I waited for our response. I was waiting for the proof, for the “real” story to unfold, and for the facts to prove that my school wasn’t bad at its core; it was just one sick man. I waited for news articles on the good we had done—surely they would be able to get someone to write about us raising $9.5 million dollars for pediatric cancer or one of the other great things we do. But it’s a good thing I didn’t hold my breath, because I’m still waiting. We all are. Penn State’s public relations department never showed up.

As a PR major, I was constantly hearing my professors’ opinions on the subject. One of my professors, who previously worked on public relations for the US Department of State, showed us a multi-pronged PR attack that could have been launched the minute the story broke. He lectured us for hours on the importance of crisis PR and drilled into our brains that “no comment” is the worst comment that any person can make—but it seemed to be the only one Penn State could utter out.

While learning all of this information, I had no choice but to sit back and watch my school nearly throw away its reputation and listen to others chant, “Pedophile State University.” Now I know that’s as far from the truth as possible, and there’s no doubt in my mind that “through and through, white and blue” will forever be a personal mantra, but I do know that someone big dropped the ball on public relations. If there was ever a doubt before, this past year sure showed the world just how important public relations is.

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