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Penn State and the PR Price of Sainthood

The Penn State scandal not only marks the end of Coach Joe Paterno's brilliant career, it is the death knell for the old crisis management canard that a good reputation is a bulwark against future bad news.
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The Penn State scandal not only marks the end of Coach Joe Paterno's brilliant career, it is the death knell for the old crisis management canard that a good reputation is a bulwark against future bad news.

Not anymore. Not in the face of the two-headed monster of really bad data points and the speed of today's informational vortex.

In fact, I would argue that in an age when everybody who has a return key on their computer is a "stakeholder" in the debate, the better your reputation, the greater the downward physics of the vortex.

It's about the contrast between what you've led us to believe about yourself and the new -- and bad -- information. Outrage moves at 100 times the speed of fact, and perceived hypocrisy is the accelerant that makes the vortex spin down faster.

Examples abound.

The winningly pristine Paterno.

The moral rectitude of Eliot Spitzer.

BP's multi-year, sunflower-spouting ad campaign.

The baby-friendly Johnson & Johnson's spate of product quality recalls.

The consumer-hostile maneuvers of the consumer-friendly Netflix.

The insider-trading implosion of corporate management guru Rajat Gupta.

Tiger Woods.

The manufacturing gold standard of Toyota against the specter of runaway, killer vehicles.

The bad data points that drive the vortex need not be verifiably true, they simply need to be plausible and resonant. Last week's Penn State news is aggravated by rumors that Paterno has retained legal counsel -- a logical but less-than-noteworthy move, if true -- and the unsubstantiated rumor that former defensive coach Jerry Sandusky may have used his charity to provide big donors access to young boys. We'll see.

"Reputation management" is a big racket and there's no shortage of vendors who claim to have the juju to polish up one's good name. Indeed, an image consultant has never been fired for advising a client to launch a campaign of self-congratulation, or "upping the positives." (Why, now that you mention it, I really am a remarkable human specimen!")

Reputation, of course, does matter, but it needs to be supported by something tangible. In an age when the scandal-plagued believe in the magical power of spin, actual progress has more power than clever messaging.

Toyota is on the road to recovery, but they make really good vehicles, not to mention a government report vindicated the company against allegations of engine-induced sudden acceleration. J&J is on the mend, but, again, it's a superb company and they make many fundamental products that consumers have come to rely on.

Tiger Woods's comeback will be anchored in winning tournaments in the same spirit that Michael Vick's return had everything to do with performance -- and the essential reality that the man did prison time.

In this climate, there is little time to pause or let any process play out, let alone the molasses of legal proceedings. Given the speed with which the Penn State scandal has been moving, the horrific nature of the allegations, and the undercurrent of an institutionalized malignancy, the trustees were probably right to opt for an immediate purge, even before all of the facts were known, and here's why: When you're facing allegations of something so universally loathsome as child abuse, any color that emerges from the investigations and prosecutions that lie ahead will only catalyze the outrage. Exculpatory legal nuances just won't cut it.

Despite the damage control cliché of "getting out in front of the story," it's ill-advised to get out in front of a runaway locomotive. That opportunity passed years ago, and Penn State is now running a crisis management marathon that will be measured in years, not hours.

As BP's recovery is about plugging the leak (they did), cleaning the mess and demonstrating that a new a more responsible regime is at the helm (works in progress), Penn State's recovery will need to be about much more than public relations. There's something Greek and karmic going on there, and a terrible and unambiguous price will have to be paid given the damage that, by nearly all accounts, has been done to defenseless children.

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