Crisis Counselor’s Open Letter to Paterno Family

Dear Jay Paterno:

Given your media visibility over the past few months, it appears the Paterno family anointed you as its crisis spokesperson. That’s a tough role for a son and brother to assume for his family.

Being no stranger to controversy and highly negative public opinion, I know how it feels to be a front-line advocate when the news media is swarming, the community is screaming shouts of outrage and doubt swirls within your own mind. I believe it is fair to say that few in my profession desire to walk in your shoes.

People earnestly respect your efforts to fiercely defend your Dad. Further, many people would not blame you if, when faced with the e-mail trail produced within the Freeh Report, the question of “Is this the man I know?” would create a raging emotional conflict in the minds of the Paterno family.

Your family’s growing problem and it is a sizable one, begins with setting aside the natural emotional reaction this type of trauma generates so clear well-reasoned decision-making follows. Unfortunately, the family’s response following the release of Louis Freeh’s report on July 12 clearly illustrates emotional thinking and the July 16 news report that the family intends to fund its own independent report is equally misguided.

Jay, the American public views the extended Paterno family as collateral damage in this disgusting affair. We are an understanding and forgiving public – to a point. My concern is your family may not be accepting the advice of your PR counsel about how your responses are teetering on the edge of whether public sentiment will remain supportive.

The essence of your USA TODAY op-ed maintains that the public perception “. . . Joe and other high-ranking Penn State officials would have protected a child predator simply to avoid bad publicity is inconceivable.” Jay, noble as that defense might be, that thought is incongruent to public opinion.

In the court of public opinion, the Jerry Sandusky jury verdict convicted your father along with the accused; the Freeh report merely confirmed the public’s suspicions. You and the family need to begin accepting that reality.

I’m sorry but your family’s intent to further investigate this issue is an idea borne from equal parts denial and continued excessive emotion. Believe me when I tell you that the Paterno family will not change public perception through a wild goose chase conducted via the rear-view mirror.

Here’s a much better idea. Look forward.

Have a family gathering, gaze across the grass and look each one of your Dad’s 17 grandchildren directly in the eyes, especially the children too young to absorb the current reality. As you do so, consider one of the first tenets of crisis management which is “control what you can control.”

Wish as you might, you cannot control the events that led to Jerry Sandusky’s criminal behavior or what the Internet will one day teach your collective children about their grandfather’s final decade at Penn State. You do, however, possess total control over the future perception of and value generated by the Paterno surname.

Capitalize upon the one issue where the Freeh Report merits public criticism. No one – and I mean no one in this Olympian game of CYA and finger pointing – has taken one step or spent one thin dime to help the children Sandusky abused.

Jay, public opinion can begin to sway back in your favor but the Paterno family needs to take a four-step course of action.

First, drop the pointless re-investigation and instead announce that the mission of the newly formed Paterno Foundation, in conjunction with the Penn State University Department of Psychology and a preeminent Pennsylvania-based child abuse crisis center, is to intellectually, medically and culturally research the national issue of child abuse; to develop innovative treatment options; and to provide counseling support for both the abused as well as the abusers.

Second, while the foundation’s structure and operational scope is being established, the Paterno family should establish a trust fund to defray the cost of lifetime psychological counseling for all children identified as Jerry Sandusky abuse victims. This expenditure, and the ongoing annual cost of operating the Paterno Foundation, would receive initial funding from the $5.5 million contact settlement between Penn State University and the Paterno family made public within the past week.

Now, detractors might say this forever links the Paterno name to the nation’s child sexual abuse issue. My reply is Google will see to that in perpetuity if the family fails to act.

By assuming control, the Paterno family can ensure JoePa’s 17 grandchildren read how the family responded to this horrible tragedy in a positive fashion. The alternative is the family adopts a pursuit that results in the family’s name being forever sullied by the evil embedded in Sandusky’s behavior.

Third, proactively transfer your energies into preserving the family’s honor. Divert money currently allocated to pay lawyers and PR pros into a fund reimbursing community-based efforts that seek to eliminate your father’s legacy.

For example, the school district in my town of Oxford, CT decided this week to remove a mural of your Dad and an accompanying motivational quote from its “Wall of Heroes” because of the nexus between your Dad’s involvement with Jerry Sandusky and his child sexual abuse conviction. Sundry other news reports inform us of similar decisions being made nationwide. Jay, your family needs to aggressively respond to these attacks upon your father’s reputation.

Contact and inform leaders of such initiatives that the Paterno family will personally reimburse the removal cost but you or a sibling wants the opportunity to deliver the reimbursement check in person.

Use these media or public events to make remarks reestablishing your Dad’s legacy to people outside of his State College, PA sphere of influence. Done properly, you’ll be surprised how this personal touch might slow –- perhaps even stop — these efforts once the family elects to personally stand-up for its core beliefs.

Fourth, fund the removal of your Dad’s statue from Penn State. Move and store it in a safe location while the family works to restore distinction to his name.

Yes, moving it away from the stadium will be sad for some local residents and most alumni, while causing deep pain for family members. But not nearly as much pain as the psychological destruction you and the family will feel when someone eventually pulls it through the streets “Saddam-style” while chained to a pick-up truck.

Earlier in this letter, I referenced possessing significant crisis communications experience. Over the past two decades, I’ve enjoyed a rich public relations career that required rebuilding a chemical company’s reputation following a fire that killed one employee; leading the strategy team for a tobacco manufacturer during the global multi-year health-based litigation; providing media relations counsel to a different chemical company during the lingering aftermath of the Bhopal, India tragedy; and directing the PR effort that sought federal permits to incinerate hazardous waste in six communities across four states.

Jay, all of the above issues possessed similarities to your family’s circumstance. The good news for you is all of those controversies were resolved by looking forward.

Placing the family’s focus on addressing the senseless act of child abuse, provides Diana, Mary Kay, David, Scott and you many opportunities to carry forth the lessons your Dad taught you or those you witnessed him sharing with others.

Most of all, embrace this opportunity to show those 17 grandchildren that greatness runs in the Paterno family and its prominent standing in this country is not solely defined by, or limited to, JoePa’s career at Penn State.

With warm regards and best wishes,

Sean Clancy
Managing Director
Evolving World Communications

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17 Comments to “Crisis Counselor’s Open Letter to Paterno Family”

  1. Vicky says:

    Excellent advice – and I say that as both a PR person and a Penn State alum!

  2. Astrid Sheil says:

    Sean,
    This is very thoughtful advice. I hope the Paterno family reads it and follows your strategic plan. We are a forgiving society…to a point. We have more respect for those individuals who “man-up” and accept the reality of a situation, than for those individuals who continue to try ad un-prove a negative.

  3. Bill Jenkins says:

    Having dealt with numerous crisis situations while VP Communications for both Beatrice Companies and FMC Corporation in Chicago, I’d say you nailed it. I understand the desire to defend a family member, but that is not possible in this situation. Your advice is right on and most thoughtful.

    • Sean Clancy says:

      Thanks Bill, I appreciate your kind words. I see you are in the Phoenix area now. Do you miss Chicago?

  4. Bonnie Caver says:

    Sean,

    Excellent advice. It is time to begin reputation repair and your steps are solid suggestions. The University has a similar road ahead as well. Thanks for taking the time to write what I think is one of the best articles I’ve seen around managing this crisis.

  5. Nancy Collins says:

    Bravo, Sean. The way forward you’ve recommended is the only way the Paternos will recover from this tragedy and the only way to repair their beloved patriarch’s reputation. You have to wonder whether their current PR firm has given similar advice that has been rebuffed (in which case, why not quit?) or whether the firm is merely the pawn of a family that, alas, is still in denial.

    • Sean Clancy says:

      Thank you, Nancy for the kind compliment. Instinct suggests that for this specific, unique circumstance, walking away quietly may be a strategic consideration rather than the firm publicly announcing it severed the relationship. It is possible such an announcement would become a multi-day media story and be viewed negatively by existing or prospective clients. Managing that issue becomes its own crisis and would certainly place the firm’s brand under fire.

  6. Ed W. says:

    Well stated about an unexpected situation that affects many. I hope those in crises have an opportunity to benefit from this post.

  7. Lars Rosene says:

    Well said Sean, well said.

  8. Brian Ash says:

    Nice job, Sean. Excellent advice.

  9. Sean:
    Well thought out and presented. A lesson to be learned by all.
    Randy

  10. Lisa says:

    Excellent piece of writing. Very thought-provoking. Thank you for sharing it, and congrats on your success!

  11. Rick says:

    Excellent advice. Especially love the idea of the Paterno Foundation becoming a resource in the battle against child abuse.

  12. Alison says:

    Sean,

    Well put, and a thoughtful response to a family’s crisis.

    Alison

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