Specializing in social marketing and business communications training

5 media lessons I learned from Penn State

I didn’t graduate from Penn State. In fact, I’ve never even been on the campus.

But in the last few days, that school has provided me with many news, PR, and communication lessons. 

In the wake of the disgusting allegations of an ongoing child-sex scandal and the subsequent firings of football coach Joe Paterno and president Graham Spanier, I offer my own observations. Disclaimer: I am the mother of two children. I’m a former radio news reporter and news director. I’ve covered hundreds of press conferences and many crisis communications trainings.

1. The old adage, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question” clearly did not apply to Wednesday night’s press conference. 

2.  Every Penn State student resorting to violence and protesting the firing of Joe Paterno should be tossed out of the school. In this case, college does not equal smart. This is the stuff that is not contained in textbooks. Anywhere.  

3. Paterno’s arrogant statement on Wednesday that he will retire at the end of the season only proves that power often brings an exaggerated sense of self-confidence and a shortage of humility.  

4. Did the PR staff at Penn State help craft this gem or did Joe Paterno wordsmith this on his own?  “Victims or whatever they want to say.” After he was fired, he urged people to “pray for the victims.” 

5.  Board of Trustees’ Vice Chairman John Surma ran the press conference announcing the firings. He may be criticized for his “PR answers” but he gets high marks from me. Surma kept his cool under extreme pressure on live TV and social media channels. He refused to be unwillingly dragged into responses and dialogue that could have turned ugly (and libelous.) He revealed little or no emotion or personal opinions. As one commentator said after the press conference, “This was a business decision.”  Surma refused to speculate on what other people knew or thought (good prep from counsel, I bet). He put an end to the madness with the standard, “Just two more questions, please.”  And he adhered to the crisis media training message, “You are the zookeeper and they (reporters) are the animals.” John Surma controlled the message he was sent to deliver. 

One final observation: Football does not trump the safety of children or any human being. Ever.

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  1. Re #3, I saw Paterno’s retirement announcement as an attempt to get ahead of the story and exert some control over what was unfolding. He didn’t see that he was riding a tidal wave. Yes, power gave him “an exaggerated sense of self-confidence and a shortage of humility.” It also obscured his vision to where he lost all sense of perspective. Any of those things is devastating when a person is in a position of authority.

    His statements to pray for the victims — made both before and after the firing — also suggest that he didn’t grasp the seriousness of the situation or his own culpability. It all sounds like a Shakesperean tragedy, except that the “tragedy” that befell the characters onstage is nothing compared to what happened out of sight to the real victims.

    • Thank you for your comments, Larry. Clearly, Paterno didn’t grasp the seriousness of the situation; well put. And you are spot-on with the “tragedy”/Shakespeare comparison. I only wish those protesting students who are supporting Paterno could spend 2 minutes with “the real victims.”



  1. […] news and wordsmithing. In early November, 2011, student journalists watch wide-eyed as local and national media converge on their beloved ‘Happy Valley’ campus. Reporters, along with bloggers and the public, […]

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