There are many lessons about crisis communications to be learned from the Penn State scandal, but these are three critical things to remember in a crisis situation:
- Never lie or deny. The truth will come out eventually. If a fabrication or cover-up is the first response, the fallout will be much more severe than if those responsible had found a way to just tell the truth at the outset.
- Respond immediately. Instead of hiding the horrible truth, Penn State should have immediately reported the alleged abuse to police and then announced the university’s proactive response. This strategy would still have damaged the reputation of the university, but on a much smaller and more manageable scale.
- Take action. In a crisis situation, all organizations should make a bold commitment to ensure the crisis never happens again. Never assume, as Freeh found the Penn State leadership to have done, that “somebody else would handle it.” To give this commitment more weight, organizations should conduct an internal review to assess why the crisis happened and to determine what safeguards can be put in place to prevent it from happening again. The results of this internal review should be made public to show the community that the organization takes the crisis very seriously and has taken all possible actions to avoid even the threat of the crisis happening again.
The Freeh Report is a sad reminder that every business and organization should be prepared for the unthinkable and have a well-thought-out crisis management and crisis communication plan ready at all times.