Onward State (GO!)

[Note: I’ve written about the Penn State sexual abuse case several times previously, first here, about Joe Paterno and later here, about the deeper institutional problems associated with sexual abuse.]

The report from the inquiry into the Penn State sexual abuse case has just been released. The New York Times’ coverage is here.

In my professional life as a communications consultant, I’ve dealt with numerous cases of sexual abuse; I have hard-earned insights about this heinous crime.

Here’s one: while individuals are and must be held responsible for their own actions, institutions, through selective attention (i.e., looking the other way), misplaced priorities (i.e., considering athletic success of paramount importance) and enabling (i.e., providing opportunity), create the conditions necessary for abuse to occur. Unless and until institutions are willing and able to address these conditions, abuse can continue.

This was certainly the case at Penn State (That’s what the inquiry’s report found.) and I’ve found it to be the case elsewhere.

So, Jerry Sandusky is in jail. Penn State and its football program will forever be linked with sexual abuse. Good but not enough, not nearly enough.

People like Sandusky can’t hurt kids without lots of help.

Not Off the Hook

Yesterday, a Pennsylvania jury convicted former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on 45 counts.

Over the past 12 months, since the Jerry Sandusky case came to broad public awareness, I’ve written 3 pieces about him, Penn State and sexual abuse:

  1. The first discusses Joe Paterno and Penn State.
  2. The second takes a look inside the PR machines that get built around these cases.
  3. The third puts the case into the broader context of the year’s PR disasters.

While I am gratified that this particular child molester has been convicted and may never be free to molest again, I think we should all be very cautious about feelings of relief. A great many people knew about Sandusky’s behavior for a very long time before his arrest and did nothing. In my professional experience with sexual abuse, which is considerable, this is often the case, despite what would-be Rambos assert afterward.

Most people will still go into denial, look away, or become impotent bystanders when faced with evidence of sexual abuse.

We can take some measure of comfort from Sandusky’s conviction, but it’s all for naught if we remain bystanders when evidence of abuse presents itself in our own lives.

PR Disasters – How Not To

Crises happen and communicating through them successfully is hard work. Here are some examples of crisis communication done the wrong way. Read. Learn. Avoid.

Netflix

Netflix has often had troubles communicating with its customers. This year, the CEO’s announcement that he was going to split the company in two puzzled everyone – there was no clear plan or even the slightest hint at a reasonable rationale for the move. Share value plunged, and the announcement was rescinded a mere 23 days later. Analysts wonder if Netflix will regain its previous status as the dominant market player.

News International

The worldwide reputation of News International and CEO Rupert Murdoch took an enormous hit when its newspapers in England were accused of bribing police and illegally wiretapping celebrities, politicians and crime victims. Early denials had to be retracted as more and more evidence proving long-standing patterns of truly horrible behavior made its way to the public.

Lowes

If you’re a home improvement retail chain, here’s something you would pretty much likely want to avoid – having your company name invoked again and again in a political controversy  over Islam in the month before the Christmas shopping season. Lowes pulled ads from a TLC reality show called “All-American Muslim” after receiving Florida Family Association (FFA) demands that it do so.  The FFA asserted the show was really undercover “propaganda that riskily [SIC] hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values.” Lowes denied the FFA demands had anything to do with its decision, but could not and did not offer a clear explanation as to why it stopped advertising.

Sony 
Over 77 million PlayStation Network accounts were shut down by Sony after the company learned it had been seriously hacked. After many initial refusals to be open about the breaches, Sony contacted customers with mild recommendations for improved Internet safety and a promise the problem would be corrected within 2 weeks. New security problems and breaches pushed that date back again and again. Customers were left to wonder about whether, and to what extent, their own data had been compromised. Cost to the company was estimated at $24 billion in expenses and lost revenue.

Penn State

[My personal thoughts about Penn State and Joe Paterno are here.]

Sexual abuse cases are pure poison for educational institutions. The case involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky (photo, above) not only brought down his former boss, the beloved Joe Paterno, and the university’s president, it significantly damaged the reputation of Penn State. The university tried to cover up allegations and evidence of abuse by Sandusky for years before finally admitting wrongdoing and its complicit silence.

Congressman Anthony Weiner 

Weiner sent a college student a photo of his erect penis via Twitter. When the photos quickly circulated the Internet, as Twitter photos are known to do, and landed in the hands of mainstream news organizations, Weiner denied vehemently they were of his member.

When a second person came forward with photos Weiner had sent her, the congressman was forced to call a press conference and admit he’d engaged in the behavior. Soon after, he resigned his seat in Congress.

Durex South Africa

More Twitter stupidity.

Posted on the official DurexSA (condom maker) Twitter account: “Why did God give men penises? So they’d have at least one way to shut a woman up.”

Really funny, huh? Especially in a country that has a serious problem with sexual assault and rape. The company might have issued an apology and the story might have died there. But to lengthen the story and compound the problem the same account posted a defensive whine: “We have posted many jokes, see our timeline… And they not violent against woman! Re-read it!!!!!”

The company eventually apologized, but not before ruining its reputation.

MF Global

In October, after MF Global declared bankruptcy $1.2 billion in customers’ funds were discovered missing.

MF Global CEO Jim Corzine resigned but refused to disclose the disposition of his former customers’ accounts. In sworn congressional testimony, Corzine, the former New Jersey governor, insisted he had no idea what happened to the money and wasn’t aware of the missing funds until MF Global filed for bankruptcy.

Republican Presidential Candidates 

Politics and party aside, these public figures were in a class by themselves. One wonders about the level of campaign staff professionalism.

  • Herman Cain – Cain self-destructed with a lethal combination of ignorance and confidence. He was hit with multiple allegations of extra-marital affairs, always difficult for a “values” candidate, but it was really his poor staff work that finished him off. This interview at a major newspaper’s editorial board revealed his complete lack of preparation for both in the meeting and the job of president.
  • Michele Bachmann – Bachmann has been prone to gaffes throughout her career, so her presidential campaign proved to be an apt moment for opponents to find and disseminate her “greatest hits.” Rather than claiming many were taken out of context, or that she’d evolved her positions as she grew on the job as a member of Congress, Bachmann most frequently chose to either reiterate her indefensible positions or make even more confusing and ignorant ones.
  • Rick Perry – Perry’s entry was much anticipated; he achieved almost instantaneous front-runner status. Almost immediately, however, Perry displayed a complete lack of focus and preparation. Rumors, supported by viral videos, swirled that he’d made campaign appearances drunk or high. His inability at a nationally-televised campaign debate, to name the three federal agencies he wanted to close sealed his political fate.

Just Don’t

More than a few times, I’ve been the guy at the other end of the phone at 3 in the morning.

In my professional life, I’ve helped people and institutions get through crises – allegations of price fixing, financial impropriety, illicit drug manufacture, sale and use, sexual abuse, homicide, accidental death, miscellaneous criminal behavior, armed conflicts, environmental issues, industrial accidents, failures of judgment, natural disasters…

You get the idea.

I have seen a great many people when they’re not at their best – when they’re scared, angry, anxious, worried, embarrassed, ashamed, or all of the above.

And more than a few wished they could have done something differently, made a different decision, not done something they did, taken back an inopportune or inappropriate comment, done something instead of nothing, been more courageous, been less sexist, been more engaged in something they’ve ignored, been at a different place or time. Truthfully, though, once a thing is done, it’s done. You can’t unfire a gun.

Of course, some people are simply upset because they were caught, but I’ve often enough seen the pain of real human regret, and that can change a person; it can make you think about the things you’ve done that may have hurt or caused damage to things you hold dear.

So, I encourage you to take advantage of my hard-earned wisdom. If you’re thinking of cutting corners – be they legal, ethical, financial, or otherwise – think again. Trust me, the extra money isn’t worth it. Neither is the sex, the political power, or the potential advantage you think you’re going to bring to yourself or your company. At some point, someone, somewhere will ask you to defend what you did – maybe even publicly – and you won’t be able to. Then you’ll call me at 3 in the morning really upset, and I won’t be able to either. And then you’ll be in some really deep shit.

Now, I’d normally charge a great deal of money for advice like that, but my morning walk with DeeDee at Fort Funston put me in a giving and charitable mood.

You’re welcome.

Paterno, Penn State and sexual abuse

[Self-disclosure: I have worked on several sexual abuse cases as a public relations and communications professional.]

Following his death after a long battle with lung cancer, many questions have been raised about the life and lasting legacy of long-time Penn State University football coach, Joe Paterno.

My friend, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s John Timpane, wrote today about social media and reactions to Joe Paterno’s death. Slate’s Torrie Bosch wondered if it was even appropriate to mourn the death of Joe Paterno.

Joe Paterno was a man, a human being. He had all the flaws, the mixture of positive and negative characteristics the term “human” suggests. Among coaches of big-time college football programs, he was known to care deeply about the welfare of his players, as people and students, in addition to athletes. This set him apart from the majority of his peers, who have obviously come to care more deeply about wins, losses and revenues than school, who tend to think of their programs as little more than college-sponsored pre-professional athletic camps. To many observers of college athletics, the Ivy-educated Paterno was always one of the “good guys.”

How does this image square with the coach’s indifference, or worse, about allegations of his former colleague’s sexual abuse of children?

In all my experience with sexual abuse, and it has been more than plenty, the human reaction I have seen, for the most part, is not active engagement but denial. People will tell themselves all manner of tortured narrative to avoid seeing evidence of abuse that stares them directly in the face. It’s only after the fact that people turn themselves into steel-eyed, bare-knuckled avengers – asserting their courage and forthrightness:

  • “I would have punched that guy’s lights out.”
  • “I would have taken a tire-iron to that guy.”
  • “I would have called the cops right then.”

Some form of that is what a great many people said when they heard about what Joe Paterno did (or didn’t do) when informed of allegations about his former assistant Jerry Sandusky.

These people may, indeed, have acted that way when faced with an allegation of sexual abuse aimed at an old friend and colleague, but it has not been my personal experience of people’s behavior in the actual moment. My direct experience tells me most people, if faced with the same situation, would have:

  • Told themselves they didn’t actually see or hear what they did
  • Told themselves someone had misinterpreted some innocent activity or other
  • Told themselves someone else must have told the appropriate authorities
  • Told themselves it wasn’t like their friend and former colleague to do that

Since that’s what my experience suggests to me, I’m inclined to accept as plausible both the Joe Paterno who didn’t push the allegations of his former assistant’s sexual abuse as vigorously as he should have, and the Joe Paterno who seemed to care for his charges like the benevolent grandfather his players and former players describe.

And, today, I believe it is right and proper to mourn that human being.