Given the continuing, intense media coverage of the report on the Penn State scandal by former FBI director Louis Freeh, there’s no doubt that what was in that report has hit the public like a sledgehammer. Freeh called the behavior of key figures involved in the scandal, including football coach Joe Paterno, “callous and shocking.”
The story of the report has spawned other articles on what powerful football programs can learn from Penn State’s handling of the scandal. I believe, however, that not just universities with Top 25 football teams can benefit from hindsight: PR pros can learn from Penn State’s egregious mistakes as well.
In my research for an upcoming story about communicators who report directly to their CEOs, I had a conversation with Roy Vaughn, director of communications at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. Vaughn is fortunate enough to have total access to the leadership at his company—a situation that many communications pros can only dream about. Within the BlueCross BlueShield leadership there’s a lot of transparency—and honesty—making Vaughn’s job a pleasure. “I feel very fortunate to work with this company,” Vaughn told me. “When you take a job, you want to know that people across the organization are making decisions through the right ethical filter. That’s what I love about this position.”
Vaughn went on to say that his job is to be the “voice of reason” for the leaders of BCBST. “CEOs will encounter people with singular perspectives based on their functional role,” said Vaughn. In other words, people with their own interests at heart. So CEOs need to get the bigger picture, and that’s where a trusted communicator comes in.
In a way, Penn State’s walled-up decision-making process prevented anyone—let alone a PR pro—from being a voice of reason. Therefore, it was never impressed upon the leaders at Penn State of the serious ramifications of what they were doing.
That’s why PR professionals looking to move up the ladder should steer clear of any organization that has such a flawed decision-making process. And they should insist on regular access to leadership.
If someone were in that “voice of reason” position at Penn State some 14 years ago, things might have been different today.
Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancamp01