Quick! What would you do if you were head of communications for Penn State University? How would you respond to serious allegations of child sexual abuse and conspiratorial cover-up at the highest levels of your esteemed institution?:
(a) Hide in the Penn State janitor’s closet, cradle a cell phone in your nervous hands, and ask your retiree mother for professional advice after uncontrollably sobbing and hyperventilating in front of your colleagues for thirty minutes.
(b) Bark “NO COMMENT!” when prompted by the media to give a comprehensive statement on the pressing issue.
(c) Inform your underlings that you will not be responding to media inquiries because you are simply too busy entering your 52-foot yacht in a boat race around the Isle of Wight.
(d) Go into crisis communications mode. Gather all of the information you can. As negative as your findings turn out to be, immediately organize a media conference and try to release all of the info during one news cycle. Remember to keep employee privacy laws in mind when addressing the media.
If you didn't pick (d), you might have benefited from attending a lecture on November 17, 2011 with George Estok, VP of Communications for SickKids Foundation. With his vast experience in both journalism and PR, Estok proved an engaging speaker and invaluable resource for our class. Using the Penn State case as a springboard for educated debate, Estok encouraged students to consider the importance of strong crisis communications plans and good relationships with the media.
To begin, Estok stated that a sound media relations plan must focus on the long term, consider the cumulative effects of communication, foster trust and credibility in your organization, and enhance your institute's reputation. He asked us to question whether the Penn State communications team was going a good job managing the crisis. At the time of the guest lecture, Penn State had yet to issue an official apology or outline what was being done about the situation. As a result, our class believed that the university could have responded with more speed and sincerity. No one in a position of authority wants to apologize because it seems an admission of guilt; however, an absence of honest compassion can negatively impact an organization’s reputation.
Estok also emphasized that no matter how you respond to a crisis, good media relations cannot create a pristine image for a poorly run organization, cover up bad service, resolve performance gaps, or overcome the fallout from something that should never have happened in the first place. Ultimately, the role of the PR practitioner is to tell his or her organization’s story persuasively, not to manipulate the media or hide under layers of spin.