In light of everything that has transpired at Penn State these past few days — with the child sex-abuse scandal, the resignation of the president, the firing of football coach Joe Paterno and the students rallying, then rioting, in support of the ousted coach — now would be a good time for public relations folks in higher ed to remind their bosses about the value of PR during times of crisis.
It’s also a good time to think about what PR can’t fix.
The Public Relations Society of America was on it with this timely post: Public Relations Won’t Fix Penn State’s Crisis. (I owe Joe Bonner [@bonnerj] a thanks for tweeting the link last night.) The PRSA post came out before last night’s big announcements at Penn State, but the message is still relevant.
It’s time we stop describing gross managerial missteps, operational failures, lying, cheating, fraud and, in this case, systematic legal and moral failings as public relations (insert “disaster,” “nightmare” or “debacle”). Frankly, a public relations disaster is trying to set the Guinness Record for the world’s largest Popsicle on a hot summer day.
Anyone who thinks public relations can be counted on to “sweep up after the parade” and serve in the role of savior for something as tragic and awful as the recent events at Penn State is fooling themselves. In the immortal words of Arthur W. Page, public relations is 90 percent what you do, and only 10 percent what you say.
There’s very little a public relations professional could say that would fix this mess.
Public relations is not a whitewash to cover up ethical failure. That’s an important message for campus administrators to hear from those of us who serve as their public relations advisors.