On the day of Joe Paterno’s passing, it is even more apparent than ever that the 32-member Penn State Board of Trustees needs an expeditious exit. At quick glance, the board consists of a respectable list of leaders of Pennsylvania industry, political leaders and the like. However, I didn’t see any public relations practitioners on the board … not a member of the broadcast media, print journalism or the communications field and no one who seems to have any background in reputation management. Now that’s not to say that these leaders have never been part of a crisis, personally or professionally. And I’m not advocating, as a public relations professional, that all boards should have someone with a reputation management background in the room. Although, that's not a bad idea. Typically, we crisis communications experts get pulled into the mix at the time of crisis, or more often, woefully late. What I am suggesting is that there should have been a stronger presence, or at least signs, of a presence of a reputation management expert in the room at the time the decision was made to remove the most iconic individual in college sports, a person whose identity is more synonymous with a single university than any individual of the 19th, 20th or thus far, 21st century. You don’t simply remove him if you care at all about the legacy of the institution you proclaim to so dearly want to protect.
What the trustees failed to realize is the impact of the reference, fired vs retired, in the media and the social media ... today and into the foreseeable future. With the firing, they forever branded Joe Paterno and the Penn State University with a Scarlet Letter, creating the opportunity for brunt of the media’s negative attention to fall on the shoulders of Joe Paterno vs where it ultimately lies, on the hands of Jerry Sandusky. If one were to analyze the media’s relatively positive attention to Joe Paterno’s passing, you would find it almost impossible to avoid a reference to his firing, the provocative and sensational negativity that we as a society live for, much like our obsession with slowing down to catch a glimpse of a horrific car accident and now these days, feeling compelled to Tweet about it.
Yes, I’m afraid the board needs to go, but not necessarily with a call before midnight or hand delivered note in the dead of night. That’s simply not Penn State’s style … that’s not what distinguishes it as a university among universities.
And one free piece of advice ... give Walter Isaacson a call and see if he's up for Joe Paterno's Bio ... Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs ... all good company.
--Dean Trevelino - @DTrevelino