Anyone in marketing and public relations knows that “perception is reality.” Right now, Penn State has a huge PR challenge ahead of it: altering its perception as an institution that values its football program over the safety of young boys. Penn State has put out an open letter to its students, offering advice for how to handle potential interviewers who ask them about the recent scandal.
Has the Penn State brand been permanently tarnished? Is it possible to damage a brand irreparably? Tiger Woods faced a tremendous backlash and lost sponsors when his affairs were discovered. Many top marketers were guessing that the Tiger brand was done for – BrandHub released an article called “Kiss the Tiger Brand Goodbye” – and those who thought more optimistically said “Some companies will never touch him again, but if he keeps his head down and his mouth shut and wins some tournaments, he might be OK.” And indeed, he seems to have done just that. His personal life has been out of the press, and only his golf game has been discussed. He was still dropped by some of his sponsors and his fans, but people don’t think “Uch, gross” when they look at him anymore.
Penn State is a different animal. A huge part of the allure of Penn State is its football program (“Why is the sky blue and white?” “Because God is a Penn State fan!”). Penn State wins games. To tarnish the reputation of the football program is to tarnish the school itself (as evidenced by student protests over Joe Paterno’s firing – note that the firing of the university president, Graham Spanier, didn’t draw such protests). Joe Paterno was so wrapped up in the school – he was well-regarded not just for his coaching abilities, but for his contributions to academic life. He IS Penn State. And the heinous nature of the alleged crimes that he was supposedly privy to … well, suffice it to say, that’s not something that people will soon forget.
So what should Penn State do? They have to start cleaning up and owning up – a sincere apology would go a long way. An unequivocal “It was wrong, and we are sorry” – not “We’re sorry you feel that way,” not “We’re sorry if our actions were misinterpreted.” Their reputation now is one that ducks, hides the truth; facing the issues head-on, no matter how unpleasant (and I read all 23 pages of the Grand Jury report; they are indeed unpleasant), would take steps toward soothing ruffled feathers.
And perhaps it should take its cue from its open letter to students, which counsels them to focus the interviewer on their specific skills and abilities – what they can bring to the role, how they plan to succeed in the position. Penn State is more than football and Joe Paterno. It must focus on rebuilding without “JoePa” at the center – it has to put its head down and do the work. Find a new president, get kids to class and graduated and in jobs, and keep moving.