Penn State: Crisis Begs a Bold Response

In this disconsolate period, Penn State needs to respond boldly and with precision. Marshaling a crisis team and a response plan are critical, including weighing the need for autonomy over the preferred unified leadership approach because “the manual” is not going to help the Dean and his cabal. The web crawlers are in frenzy over this story that has T1 pipes rattling with all the feeds. Therefore, decentralized decision-making is best for the voracious appetite of the media blogosphere. The problem isn’t resources; it’s about managing the crisis with a can-do culture and strong values of trust and no lengthy procedures that unified leadership can inflict.

When you need to be impactful, strong and rapid to entice massive support from the public, hide nothing and tell all is the key lesson. “It’s not about the why it’s about the moment and what you do in that moment” Gandalf (played by Sir Ian Mckellan) wisely imbued on Frodo Baggins who was panicking over the looming catastrophe, and his role in “Lord of The Rings” where the key lesson of leadership is about holding other people’s fears. Joe Paterno had shepherded those fears for over 40 years. Now his reputation is shattered, US media is rabid, Penn State’s in tatters, the state’s in rage, communities are split, families bicker and 18 children have been abused. And the unconscionable public displays and statements of defiance and reluctance we’re witnessing from the likes of Sandusky belie what must be an invidious reminder of a widening sense of despair and desperation.

Decontaminating the Penn State brand from a situation that’s base, low, ominous, nasty, and pernicious – what can mitigate the circumstances and reinvent Penn State’s brand? So pervasively huge is the scandal that reinvention is the only path for Penn State and the firing of President Graham Spanier was a wise beginning, but the deference must be bold.

Brands decline when they’re no longer sublime. Therefore, in a crisis that deracinates your heritage, it’s essential to know what makes you special, wrap up the past and blast in to the present: People often don’t know what they want until you show it to them. To be important, the response from Penn State should not aim to change the world. Many pundits are tethered to an old regime (if it bleeds if leads) and can’t innovate rapidly onto an associated story that’s positive– Penn State is unique and no one should be able to take away what they have achieved and, more important, what they can achieve.

The Penn State brand has relied on its authenticity. Now that’s been scuttled there’s a need for a flash incarceration of publicly shown material, references and photographs of Sandusky and his cadre. Call it synaptic pruning to make the blast radius less encircling on campus. The successful legacy of the team makes that extremely difficult. However, people are more likely to change behavior in response to swift and certain actions rather than waiting for severe ones that likely won’t be peremptory.

In Penn State’s advantage, brands who immediately admit they’re not invincible tend to fall lighter or not lose their reputation so dramatically. Therefore, the Penn State brand is compelled to distance itself from Paterno and begin to reinvent itself by boldly stating it’s doing so. This does mean killing a powerful part of the story of Penn State’s heritage and what has made the brand so special, but it must happen now (at great expense if need be). The momentum of the initiative, helped by the campus, will aim to help people feel more on top of a worsening situation of morality.

A glorious past of winning has enabled Penn State to have successfully created an authentic community that has played an anchor role in Penn State’s recognition nationwide. Now they must celebrate the team, the individuals, the students and the fans. Penn State needs to reinvent that legacy and the ties that are entwined. The need for distance should spur many organizational management decisions and brand strategies that will aim to transition the “Paterno” affair away from the Penn State brand. This is relatively easy if applied ruthlessly, and rest assured, brands can change their approach, leaders, workers, and products and perform better as long as the core idea of who the brand is remains relevant.

Dragged into a war Penn State did not create, its history needs an injection of tomorrow and that needs to happen today to ratify who they are and what they believe longer term. The sense of integrity that encircled Joe Paterno must be cut away and kept alive with added depth, credibility and magic in the Penn State halo. This is a sinister moment for Penn State to be ambitious, a moment where we will see what they’re made of; leadership is not about making friends, besides nothing but cold contempt is required for those involved in this horror story.

To stay alive it is hard for established brands to reinvent while they remain true to their vision. Look at the past and see the future. Victory conditions do not need to be unachievable. Penn State needs to turn the hard into the possible with an ambitious, audacious “public” program to find the compass for bold new growth and reinvention with the help from as many as he can muster. Hopefully he has instructed already set up a special crisis group that has no ties or involvement with the case and it’s “no comment” rules, i.e., their focus is solely on the publicized efforts of Penn State’s reinvention symbolized by an entirely revitalized brand identity and communications system that catapults the new Penn State movement for every part of the journey, including the team shirts.

It’s not all vituperative; Penn State needs a “hail Mary pass” to find their True North that will grow new, bold and exciting ways to entice the people back into a “Penn State” way without all the morass of information and chatter. It’s easy to lose sight of strategy: Joe Paterno must be jettisoned and Penn State needs to choose a lane: recalcitrance or reinvention. Let’s play ball.


Author: Dean Crutchfield

Builds Brands and Fixes Them When Broken

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