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Crisis management experts say painful Freeh report helps Penn State to move on
NEW YORK (AP) A scathing report accusing Penn State coach Joe Paterno and other top university officials of hiding what they knew about Jerry Sandusky's sexual abuse of children is another crippling blow to a school and football program already reeling from one of the worst scandals in sports history.
Former FBI Director Louis Freeh's report on the Sandusky scandal charges that Paterno and other Penn State officials buried the allegations and allowed Sandusky to prey on boys for years.
Despite the report's revelations, public relations professionals and industry observers say its release was a necessary step as the university tries to regain public trust.
In the wake of Freeh's report, Penn State's trustees said they accept full responsibility for their failures in oversight.
"Our hearts remain heavy and we are deeply ashamed," Trustee Ken Frazier said in a statement.
What further steps can Penn State take to repair its tarnished image? Here are some ideas from crisis management experts, image consultants and other observers:
LET THE HEALING BEGIN "As painful as this was and it was a body blow of mass proportions it was probably the best thing they could do," says Peter Shankman, a vice president at the public relations firm Vocus Inc. "By issuing the report they're doing what they haven't in 15 years. People can't start to heal until they start doing the right thing."
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who left office in 2011, believes Penn State should emphasize the changes it is making to ensure that such a crime never happens again.
APOLOGIZE AND TAKE RESPONSIBILITY "Penn State needs to take responsibility, apologize, be honest and show compassion," says Elizabeth Lampert, who runs her own PR firm in Alamo, Calif. "With those herculean tasks accomplished, they can begin to rebuild, but this scandal will never be 'behind' them."
Stan Steinreich, CEO of Steinreich Communications Group in Fort Lee, N.J., says that in situations like this, it's important to tell the truth, which is what Penn State officials should have done instead of initially attempting a cover-up.
"This will be studied for a long time by those in the industry as one of the worst PR catastrophes of all time, in terms of spiraling out of control," Steinreich says. "I think that there is always a time where a corporation or an individual has to stand up and take the fire. Continuing to circle the wagons like Penn State (did) doesn't help."
TAKE CHARGE Mark Conrad, a law and ethics professor at Fordham University in New York, says university officials need to formulate a plan that sets forth sweeping changes, including stronger controls over the university's athletic programs, especially football.
And in order to restore trust, a better system needs to be created for reporting violations, Conrad believes.
"The trustees have to be more involved and more aware," says Conrad, who specializes in sports law. "The report pointed out that they weren't always. And they're ultimately the people in charge of the university."
Don Tanner, a partner with Farmington Hills, Mich.-based Tanner Friedman Strategic Communications, criticizes the university for being slow to respond since the scandal first surfaced last year.
"They have to reassure their students, their alumni, the world, that this will never happen again," Tanner said. "If more people need to be fired they need to do that. They need to show they're serious about what has taken place."
Gene Grabowski, executive vice president of Levick Strategic Communications, a Washington, D.C.-based crisis communications firm that has advised universities and Fortune 100 companies, says Penn State's plan must show a commitment to change, even if that inflicts pain on Penn Staters who feel they've done nothing wrong.
"It's not about punishing the guilty at this point," Grabowski says. "It's about demonstrating a commitment to a new way of doing business that the university now has to do. And some sacrifice must be made, and sometimes the innocent suffer. There must be a sacrificial lamb here."
He suggests the "lamb" could be Penn State's storied football program.
"That may be unfair, but it may be necessary," he says.
But Conrad says he doubts Penn State officials would take such a drastic measure as to cancel the football season, given the affect it would have on the team's players and the overall importance Penn State places on football.
SEVER TIES WITH THE PATERNOS? Some experts believe Penn State should take down its famous bronzed statue of Paterno and sever ties with his family.
Conrad insists that any association with the memory of the former coach or his family is bad for the university right now. He notes, however, that could change down the road.
"For the time being, it's too much of a reminder," Conrad says. "People look at it and see this picture of a man that didn't take the actions that he should have. For now, it needs to come down."
The Paterno family is well known in the community for philanthropic efforts, including the millions of dollars they've donated to the university to help build a library and fund endowments and scholarships.
But recently, the famed coach's name has been stripped from other honors. Nike founder Phil Knight, who won thunderous applause with his passionate defense of the coach at his January memorial service, decided Thursday to remove Paterno's name from a child development center on Nike's campus in Oregon.
The Big Ten removed Paterno's name from the football championship trophy it had named after him.
However, Shankman says that rushing to take down the statue would be a "knee-jerk reaction." He believes the university should take some time to talk to the community and see what it wants before making a decision.
"It's a rough situation, a lot of people are not willing to speak ill of the dead, but there are a lot of people who are speaking ill of Paterno right now," Shankman says.