James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA

Tuesday, February 26, 2013 was a bright, cold, sunny day as I prepared to depart State College, Pennsylvania, the home of Penn State football, after participating the evening before in a really interesting and wide-ranging panel discussion; an exploration of the problems this University is facing, and continues to face, before 200 people. The program was called, “Integrity in Times of Crisis.”

By now, just about everybody reading this blog knows what I’m talking about, the sexual assault and rape of young boys by a coach, Jerry Sandusky, and perhaps others, who has since been sentenced to 60 years in prison.  Head coach, Joe Paterno, was fired and died soon after.  Among his dying words were, “I should have done more.”  These words still ring around the University.

The University itself is still going through extraordinary trauma.  Those in charge at the time of the crimes were fired, but were paid handsomely.  The next crew of managers brought in did their best to protect the reputation of those just fired, and began the collective forgetting process, which is always a part of the post-crime behaviors of corporate leadership.  The subsequent investigation by Louis Freeh, former head of the FBI, an independent observer and monitor, forced this second group of managers out, their having been complicit in a cover-up of the cover-up, and a new crew of leaders was installed.

After this much trauma, one would think that the folks at Penn State would be ready for a rest, and hopefully to begin the process of healing the organization.  But not this University.

Almost from the beginning there was pushback against the authorities, against the media, against anyone who would dare criticize the University’s athletic programs and the iconic coach, Mr. Paterno.  These emotions persist to this day.  But, there is more.

On that bright, snappy February morning, as I waited for the shuttle to the airport, the local morning paper trumpeted a story that the Board was asking Mr. Freeh to return his multi-million dollar fee because they felt his independent analysis of what happened was flawed.  I’ve actually been involved in quite a number of cases where individuals are assaulted, including other academic institutions, churches, and several other venues.  In my career, this latest action by the University reflects an incredibly callous, anti-victim testosterosis-charged attitude.

This syndrome I refer to as Victim Confusion.  That’s where the perpetrating organization or individuals become so agitated by being caught, exposed, humiliated, and perhaps punished, that they strike back.  This is, in my experience, an unusual approach to resolving these issues.  And, it is a mistake, which Penn State will come to find, to be worse than the original criminal behavior that triggered all this negativity.

In my view, Penn State pushing back against Louis Freeh has two serious problems:

First, the University’s behavior is viewed by the victims as yet another attack on them and exacerbates all the crimes victims have suffered already.  Second, one of the characteristics of sexual assault and rape, especially on the scale it was conducted there over many years, means that many victims have yet to be discovered, or to reveal themselves.  Victims of these crimes are unlikely to come forward initially because they’re ashamed, humiliated or fearful, or for other personal reasons.  This action by the University against Freeh may cause additional victims to come forward and compound the University’s already complex problems.

To make matters worse, preceding this decision on the part of the University, the governor of Pennsylvania, up for reelection, unilaterally sued the NCAA to refund the more than $70 million in fines it imposed on Penn State.

Always remember Lukaszewski’s First Law of Crisis Survival: Neither the media, the government, your toughest competitor or critic can bring you down.  It’s almost always accomplished by overconfident leadership, enthusiastic but ignorant employees, well-meaning friends, relatives, or people who actually know.

It remains to be seen, but it’s probably safe to predict that running for public office, as the governor is about to do, on the backs of rape and assault victims is a risky political strategy, even in Pennsylvania.

Only time will tell if Penn State can get away with this pushback. But, such behavior does raise additional questions.

— “How does fighting back in this situation help the University heal?”

— “Who will this pushback vindicate?”

— “Why do companies and their leadership continue to make the very same mistakes time and time again?”

— “Don’t they read the papers?”

— “Don’t they watch the news?”

— “Don’t they talk about how to avoid the problems they see their colleagues, peers and friends having?”

Will leaders and companies ever learn from their mistakes? The simple and direct answer to this and the other questions is, very rarely.  Businesses fail to learn because the typical response to a crisis is focused more on forgetting than learning. The first inclination is to punish the innocent, next, to cover up the misdeeds of the powerful; and then purge the organization of anyone remotely associated with the problems, including the chief executive, sometimes the CFO and even the general counsel.

What is learnable from these crimes and behaviors?

1.  Culture change requires that the University preserve, expose, disclose and continuously discuss these criminal behaviors rather than simply eradicating them from the life, even the history of their organization.

2.  The perpetrators and those found guilty should be required to make periodic appearances to subject themselves to public and survivor questioning to help others understand the sources, nature, and scope of damage to deter future, similar criminal behavior.

3.  Traditionally, puffy public relations is the exact opposite of what’s needed and will encourage the cover up of previous, and perhaps current, negative administration activities.  Public Relations activities that distract from discussing what happened signals diminished additional ongoing disclosures and demeans the important culture-changing activities required.

4.  The new compliance structure should continue investigating, be vigilant, and impose compliance.  Facts, information and data should be disclosed continuously as discovered.  Monitoring must focus on present senior administrators of the institution.  Their predecessor’s lack of leadership, complicit behavior still goes largely undiscovered and unpunished.  And, given half a chance, history demonstrates that the new interim administrators are weak and likely to follow or be pushed into covering up similar repulsive behaviors.

5.  Culture change occurs through a continuous senior leadership based effort to remind, remember, rehearse, and revisit the circumstances that permitted the victimization of these children.  The cultural change goals are to ensure that such events and circumstances are deterred, reported, investigated, prosecuted and prevented.

One of the last questions asked by the audience during the panel the previous evening was, “How long does culture change take?”  “Well, let’s see,” I responded, “When will the victims stop being victims?”

There has to be a better way. These patterns of willful ignorance, organized forgetfulness, organizational deafness, and the love of yesterday are what give management and leadership the opportunity to say nothing, learn nothing and do nothing.

The legacy of this criminal episode in Penn State University’s history is likely to be those fateful words uttered by Coach Paterno, “I should have done more.” So should many others who knew, but did nothing.