More on the Leadership of Governance and Public Relations

As a general rule, we are a people who have no particular affinity for the societal group termed “Monday morning quarterbacks” – you know, those who tell the listener what (the teller thinks) went wrong after the fact Mostly we don’t like that kind of quarterbacking because the communication ends with the negative input, and there is usually no accompanying positive input stating how things might have been done better And we especially don’t seem to like it when the Monday morning quarterbacking is directed at us!

However, if we are going to better ourselves as a society, and if we’re going to improve the total performance of the organizations we have been charged with leading, sometimes it’s really helpful to analyze a debacle after it occurs to figure out what we should do to prevent something similar from occurring whether in our personal lives or in our organizations.

Sadly Penn State has presented us with one of the most poignant case studies in recent memory, a case from which much can be learned if we’re willing both to examine that situation in a non Monday morning QB style and to be personally introspective.  As I mentioned in my last Blog, although I didn’t go to college at Penn State, I did grow up about 35 miles from State College and have followed Penn State football for years.  Since the news of the Sandusky situation broke I have read over 100 articles on the subject in order to gather relevant information and to obtain varying points of view on the issues that pertain to the case.  Curiously, only two of the articles I have read touched on the role governance played in this case.

What is clear in all of the murkiness surrounding the debacle in Happy Valley is that there were multiple catastrophic lapses in governance leadership over time that lead to the events that occurred and catastrophic lapses in public relationships leadership after the crisis became public.  No doubt on either of those points.  But the question I ask myself is what, if anything, would I have done differently if I had been in a leadership position at Penn State?

If I had been on the Board from about 1990 to 2000, possibly nothing, because as close to now as that time period seems to be, it’s light years removed in terms of today’s best governance practices.  While that doesn’t absolve those Boards that served during that time period, it is reasonable to understand why they may have acted (or more likely, not acted) in the manner they did that set the foundation for the recent events to become viable.  But any Board that served after 2000 (remember Sarbanes-Oxley in 2002?), with the emergence of risk management and whistleblower policies (that are active and monitored externally) as part of a sound governance process, should not be able to claim ignorance in terms of proactively assessing risk factors and helping the organization manage effectively against those risks (certainly the ones that could be catastrophic if they ever occurred).  That did not happen at Penn State.

Regarding the public relations nightmare that followed the breaking news at Penn State, I will be the first to admit that I’m not a public relations expert.  And that’s good, because I would have immediately done three things in this case if I had been in a leadership position at Penn State.  The first would have been to appoint one individual as the initialspokesperson for the university, and that individual’s first statement to the media would have been “we will hold a press conference at 8:00 PM this evening to address these issues publicly” – one person, one message.  The second and third things I would have done in order to prepare for the soon to occur press conference would have been to (2) engage a law firm that has deep experience with the legal aspects of crisis management and private jet that firm’s senior crisis management partner to my office, and to (3) engage a PR firm that has deep experience in assisting with messaging for negative situations that can have international impact and private jet that firm’s senior partner to my office.  In six hours I would have been ready to make my first address to the media in a manner that would have eliminated or lessened the possibility for further embarrassment. Based on the critiquing and discussions that took place in classes at Penn State after the university’s PR attempts, it’s not clear that either the Board or senior management sought the guidance of those university professors who are experts in PR prior to speaking with the media.  (Please note that by PR, I do not mean “managing the news” in an attempt to avoid culpability, but rather “here’s what happened” (we acknowledge the problem), “here’s what we are doing” (taking these actions) and “here’s what we cannot address at this time” (either due to lack of information or due to potential adverse legal implications).

The question to us is – with what we have observed from the Penn State situation, what can we do in our organizations to acknowledge and manage risk, and what can we do to have an effective PR policy in place and ready if we need to activate it?  Just food for thought if you are committed to excellence in leadership.

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