Image Patrol: Penn State vs. Herman Cain: Start Rewriting Your Crisis Plan

We don’t normally write about sex scandals in Image Patrol, but it’s been hard to find a PR crisis in the last month that hasn’t involved sex. Given the prevalence of these crises, we thought we’d compare not just how two recent crises were handled, but also the baffling results.

On the one hand you have Herman Cain, who has ignored virtually every accepted premise of crisis communications when confronted with allegations of sexual harassment from his days as president of the National Restaurant Association.

As I have reiterated countless times in Image Patrol, the first rule of crisis communication is that actions always speak louder than words. But all candidate Cain has done since the story broke is talk. At first his campaign ignored it, not responding to a reporter’s questions on the topic for 10 days.

Then came denial, then waffling, then deflection and now an attempt to drown out the opposition with media buys, including a paid search Google ad that links to “” if you Google the name of one of his accusers. Cain’s actions contradict years of academic research showing that these techniques don’t work. But in this case, they are, in fact, working, if donation and poll numbers are any indication.

On the other hand, you have the case of Penn State University, a large state university with arguably one of the best colleges of communications in the country. (Full disclosure: Marcia DiStaso, an assistant professor at Penn State, is a friend and colleague.) It is also known as one of the top party schools in the country as well as having one of the most college football teams in history. When a grand jury investigation revealed a history of child sex abuse by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, the university did what we so often recommend in Image Patrol—it acted rather than just talked—firing its beloved football coach Joe Paterno as well Graham Spanier, who had served as PSU president for 16 years. In the wake of that decision, students on campus rioted, providing the world with dramatic pictures of enraged, mostly male students carrying signs in support of Paterno, overturning a news van and clashing with riot police. Many see the cost of these actions as damaging Penn State’s reputation for years to come with alumni, sponsors and the local community.

    Penn State University

Criteria Grade Comments Advice

Extent of coverage


The grand jury couldn’t have planned a better time to release its investigation. The news broke at the end of the baseball season, in the vacuum of the basketball lockout and in middle of a football season in which Coach Paterno was being lauded as the “winningest coach in college football history.” There was no way this story wouldn’t dominate the media.

Timing is everything, and you are never in control of the news cycle. In today’s environment, your crisis plan should just assume that all news will break at the worst possible time.

Effectiveness of spokespeople


Spokesperson? What spokesperson? In the first days, PSU president Spanier voiced support for Paterno, and Paterno conducted his own press interviews. When the board of trustees terminated both the coach and the president, the most visible person was John P. Surma, the U.S. Steel chief executive who is vice chairman of the Penn State board of trustees and clearly many steps removed from both students and local media.

Make sure in any crisis that you have a credible spokesperson who ideally has existing relationships with the media. Trust doesn’t happen overnight, so if you throw someone new in front of the proverbial lion’s den of a press conference in this kind of situation, that person better come with credibility baked in.

Communication of key messages


I assume that when they decided to take fast action and fire both the coach and the president, Penn State trustees wanted to send a message of concern. What they failed to communicate was any compassion toward the victims. As a result, the perception lingered that the decisions were being made to protect the brand and to placate donors and fundraisers, rather than out of concern for the victims.

Taking action is one of the basic tenets of crisis communications, but so is communicating compassion. Make sure that whatever actions you take convey the right message.

Management of negative messages


The failure of Penn State to take action before the report was released, and the failure of the board to demonstrate any compassion for the victims pretty much guaranteed that the major message communicated was that the trustees were more concerned about the brand than about the victims.

The most negative message in a crisis is: We don’t care about the victims. Whatever you communicate, make sure the victims come first.

Impact on alumni, donors, students and faculty


The consensus is that the impact of this crisis will tarnish Penn State’s reputation for many years to come. Reports are already surfacing of trustees concerned about supporters reneging on pledges. Images of riots aren’t going to help.

It’s always hard to predict the financial and long-term impact of a crisis, but research is an excellent barometer. A trust or relationship survey of key constituents would provide a great deal of insight into what the true impact will be.

Overall score


They did it half right. Trustees acted quickly and decisively, but the impact of their actions was diminished by their poor crisis communication.

No matter how bad you can imagine it gets, it can and will be worse. So assume the worst, and then assume that the conditions on which your crisis communication plan was based will change dramatically—and probably not for the better.


 Herman Cain





Extent of coverage


If Cain’s goal was to get as much coverage as possible during the election campaign, the strategy worked. He certainly drew worldwide attention (as I write this in Dubai, it’s even being covered here). The question as always is, will the coverage be desirable and will it advance you toward your goal. That remains to be seen.

Sex and politics is nothing new, but how Cain is approaching the scandal is new. If you want to keep the media coverage flowing in a crisis, keep surprising the media with new details.

Effectiveness of spokespeople


There is no denying that Cain is an orator. His passion and his ability to evoke audience responses are a key element in his campaign. Whether he is also an effective spokesperson remains to be seen. Certainly in comparison to his closest rival, Rick Perry, he has an edge.

The key to an effective spokesperson is credibility. As long as there is a “drip drip” of new facts that call into question the credibility of your story, the less credibility your spokesperson will have.

Communication of key messages


Cain rejects classic crisis communications approaches that would dictate owning the problem and expressing compassion for victims. Instead he blames others for his plight. The odd thing is, it seems to be working. The longer the crisis continues, the more his messages are picked up by the media.

There are some who would argue that as long as the cameras are turned on you, there is an opportunity to communicate your key messages. Depending on your messages, in today’s topsy-turvy media environment, it just might work.

Management of negative messages


The problem with Cain’s approach is that the longer the scandal continues, the more the media and the pundits call into question his suitability to be president. Even before the scandal broke his organization was under fire for its chaotic approach to campaigning. The scandal has only fueled those perceptions.

Reporters are a notoriously picky crowd and most are veterans of numerous “hastily called press conferences,” so they know the difference between an organization that is properly managed and one that is in chaos mode. However, the majority of media coverage today doesn’t start with a press conference, it starts with a visit to your Facebook or Twitter page. If you put a professional face online, most people may never know how crazy things really are.

Impact on voters


Most polls indicate that the scandal has had little effect on Cain’s polling and has, in fact, increased his donations substantially. How much this has to do with Cain himself versus the weakness of other candidates has yet to be determined.

The goal is always the achievement of your mission, whether that mission is preserving the financial stability of the organization, achieving the mission or getting elected. If—and that is a big if—that goal can still be achieved, the impact of a crisis may be negligible.

Overall score


According to many, Cain is doing everything wrong. To others he is writing a totally new playbook. In this case, both conclusions are correct.

In today’s media environment, any organization should be rewriting its crisis communication plan, if not its entire rule book.

Is this just a matter of a couple of anomalies in the ongoing narrative of reputation management? Or has new media completely upended the tables on classic PR responses in a crisis? I believe it is more the latter than the former. Much of the standard literature on crisis communications was written before the Arab Spring, before the proliferation of cell-phone videos and before politicians had learned how to circumvent the media and communicate directly to their supporters. Since the rules of communications and branding are already being rewritten, it is probably time to dust off and update your crisis communications plans as well. PRN


Katie Paine is CEO of KDPaine & Partners, a PR measurement agency. She can be reached at

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