College is the brand that’s taking a beating these days, as the value of a four-year education comes under fire and student loans strangle many. But now the recent news and horror of the Penn State crisis is topping the list.
Given college football's fanatical fan base, it’s hard not to compare the sport with religion, and the similarities to the Catholic Church and its own scandals are all over the media. Can Penn State survive? (Can football?) Or is it game over?
Signs of chinks in the armor emerged this weekend, as ABC News reported that Moody’s credit rating agency is considering a downgrade for the state school because of “allegations of sexual abuse by former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, related charges against two university officials and the firing of football head coach Joe Paterno, an icon at the school.” (An aside: The report also says Penn State has about $1 billion worth of rated debt.)
Football has already been in the news of late for various reasons; I’ve written endlessly about it because I think the health risks—concussions, brain damage, suicidal behavior—of a touchdown and a Nike contract are just not worth it.
Regardless of which team you root for, here are six points that can help any college or university score a touchdown and bring its brand back from the brink:
Call 911 on the 101s. At the most basic level, the eruption of angry students in response to Paterno’s firing is proof positive that football is more important than education at this university. Penn State owes it to itself and its student body (and their families) to do some serious crisis communications about why Paterno needed to go. That’s PR 101.
Get involved in CSR. And start with the victims and their families. There’s no dollar amount anywhere that could forgive the actions of a pedophile, but a fund would help restore the reputation of PSU and show that the school is acknowledging its irresponsibility.
Rewrite the playbook. Penn State must completely overhaul its college athletics program, with everyone from students to coaches signing a pledge to be fully transparent at all levels—before, during and after play.
Redefine value. The school needs to put a premium on education, not athletics, as its true mission going forward. A refocus on teaching and learning will shift the attention away from a now severely tarnished sports program.
Right to Know is wrong. Penn State needs to waive its protection under the Pennsylvania Right to Know Law and disclose, disclose, disclose. If the school continues to be silent, it will never restore its reputation.
Put the students front and center. As Penn State reboots, the only way it can save itself is to put the focus on the student body. A rebrand should include prominent and successful alumni coming out to support the school once the dust clears.
And an extra point for the following:
Get emotional. Amid such horrible news, the world watched as the press conference in response to the events felt cold and dispassionate. Now is not the time to be clinical, when so many lives have been ruined. Find a spokesperson at the U that can be empathetic, not cold.
For a field goal, three more points to consider involve acknowledging and righting the utterly shocking lack of accountability, hiding the truth and putting the lives of students who innocently played sports at their own risk. In this post-transparent age in which we are (pre)occupied with everything that is wrong with everything, brands can’t afford such hideous acts of indecency.
Today’s brands must put their message where their mouth is, and Penn State has some serious work to do as we all come to terms with what happened there.