When Going On the PR Offensive is Just Plain Offensive

On Wednesday, August 22, Dr. Graham Spanier, former president of Penn State University, and his lawyers went all attack-dog on former FBI director Louis Freeh and his report that blasted Spanier for failing to stop Jerry Sandusky’s child abuse on campus. Spanier used a variety of platforms Wednesday to vent against Freeh and the report—holding a press conference, appearing on ABC’s Nightline and giving an interview with The New Yorker magazine.

Going on the PR offensive is a tried and true tactic, and Spanier made the most of it, telling Nightline: “Never in my time as president of Penn State did I ever — ever once — receive a report from anyone that suggested that Jerry Sandusky was involved in any child abuse, in any sexual abuse, in any criminal act.”

But this is where his offensive stalls. He went on to say that he only knew that Sandusky had been engaging in “horseplay” in a campus shower with a boy in 2001. Horseplay, to Spanier, meant “throwing water around, snapping towels,” he told Nightline. For a moment, except Spanier’s argument as the truth, but pretend you’re a president of a major university and someone tells you an assistant football coach is engaging in “horseplay” in a shower with a boy. I don’t know about you, but that’s a red flag for me.

Interviewer Josh Elliott then asked Spanier about the e-mail he wrote in which he agreed with administrators that the Sandusky incident should stay in-house, but that he was worried that Sandusky’s horseplay could leave Penn State “vulnerable.” If it was just snapping towels, why did Spanier even use the word “vulnerable” in the e-mail? His subsequent explanation to Elliott on his meaning of “vulnerable” was so nonsensical, I can’t explain it.

As Spanier was trying to defend his actions, his lawyers were launching an all-out attack on Louis Freeh and the report, with one saying the report was “a flat-out distortion of facts so infused with bias and innuendo that it is, quite simply, unworthy of the confidence that has been placed in it.” Remember that Penn State hired Freeh to investigate the school’s actions and write the report in the first place. And also remember that Freeh carries quite a bit of credibility as a former top G-man.

Writing about Spanier’s media blitz, Tom Harvey of the New York Daily News said Spanier’s statements could pose the ex-PSU president big problems—and could even help the government in a possible criminal indictment. That’s the kind of outcome Spanier and his team weren’t looking for.

That is why it’s wise to think things over carefully before going on an all-out offensive, and have some plausible answers ready for the media. Otherwise, you’re just being offensive.

Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancamp01

  • http://www.theprcoach.com Jeff Domansky

    Scott, really good analysis. The credibility gap on this one is huge.

  • http://www.funkyadjunct.com Jason Karpf

    Spanier’s interview is a huge PR fail in a series of many by Penn State leadership. “Horseplay” will become a derisive codeword for coverup and denial.

  • http://www.tieonline.com Cindy Nagrath

    This will probably go down as a classic PR fiasco case study, with step-by-step pointers of what NOT to do in a crisis situation:

    1.) Have the leader of your organization, NOT accept responsibility by saying the buck stops here.

    2.) Have your leader downplay and deny a massive incident that has shocked and appalled decent people the world over.

    3.) Have your leader sugar-coat child molestation with the euphemism, “horseplay.”

    4.) Allow your leader to harbor a known pedophile and order that his actions be kept secret because it could leave your organization “vulnerable.”

    5.) Disregard the vulnerability of children and allow a sexual predator free and unrestricted access to minors in your organization’s facilities.

    6.) Have your leader, and his legion of lawyers, criticize the independent investigation that your own organization ordered.

    7.) Go on the PR offensive with personal attacks on the lead investigator. Earn extra points if he just so happens to be a former FBI Director and you deliver your message across major media to the widest possible audience.