Penn State, Syracuse Universities Consult With Crisis Managers

Colleges seek professional help about sexual abuse allegations.

Dec. 2, 2011— -- A little more than a week ago I walked into the house after my morning run and on my way upstairs, while peeling off my jacket, heard the name "Bernie Fine" and the words "sexual allegations" in the same sentence coming from a newscaster on the bedroom TV. I took the remaining steps two at a time, pushed open the door and asked my wife if the story had anything to do with Syracuse University.

"Yes," she replied. "And it's not good." Syracuse is my alma mater and hers, and I've served on various boards and committees there over the last 19 years. I immediately started thinking about the Penn State scandal and began wondering if this scandal would taint the name of my university and by association diminish some its great accomplishments.

Enter advertising, marketing and public relations' youngest sibling: Crisis Management. Crisis management seeks to limit the damage done when people and organizations find themselves in crisis situations. Attorneys operate by the credo that everyone is innocent until proven guilty and are entitled to defend themselves. Crisis managers lead their clients down a specific path designed to minimize the damage and to position the client to be able to salvage as much as possible and move on. Crisis managers help their clients understand that they must accept or assign blame, solve the crisis, show how they have learned from it and put into effect controls to reduce the risk of a similar situation arising.

Crisis managers are needed in our news-dense world. A crisis can dominate the headlines for weeks and severely damage individuals and institutions.

Many organizations, when faced with a crisis, first try to deny or minimize the situation. Toyota fist denied that some of its cars could accelerate on their own -- even telling consumers to put their car mats in the trunk -- before it admitted fault, recalled certain models and publically apologized. BP oil's then-CEO, Tony Hayward, told reporters that the millions of gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico were "tiny" in relation to the total water volume. He said the gulf was a "Big Ocean." He was finally forced to step down. BP spent hundreds of millions in cleanup and reparations.

In the case of Syracuse University, long-time assistant coach Bernie Fine was accused by two stepbrothers, former ball boys, of sexual molestation. ESPN broke the story in an interview with one of the boys. Head Coach Jim Boeheim immediately defended Fine and made a statement discrediting the boys. After additional information surfaced including a taped conversation between one of the accusers and Fine's wife, Boeheim has continued to support Fine, a friend since his college days, but less energetically.

In that regard, he responded in a similar way Penn State President Graham Spanier had when defending the actions of Tim Curley, Penn State's athletic director, and Gary Schultz, vice president for finance and business who were allegedly informed about a specific incident of child abuse by former Penn State Defensive Coach Jerry Sandusky.

Syracuse, however, has responded more proactively than Penn State did initially. The chancellor is a tiny fireball of a woman named Nancy Cantor. She is hands-on, articulate and at all times in control -- in short, a crisis manager's dream. She released a statement immediately, and as more evidence emerged, fired Fine. She convened and kept in close contact with the Board of Trustees and promised to investigate the accusations.

On the surface, there are a lot of similarities to the situations at the two universities. The alleged crimes took place over a significant period of time and were allegedly perpetrated by men who had bosses who were responsible for what happened on their watch.

Both schools have storied athletic programs. Penn State has the seventh winningest NCAA Division 1 football team of all time and has won two national championships. Syracuse is the fifth winningest NCAA Division 1 basketball team of all time, with three appearances and a win in the national title game. Joe Paterno had the longest coaching tenure in Division 1 football history at 46 years. Boeheim, in his 34 years as head coach of Syracuse, is fifth on the list of division 1 basketball coaches with the most wins.

Both colleges have a lot to lose. Penn State has hired PR giant Ketchum Communications to help with its crisis management. Syracuse is consulting with alumnus Paul Verbinnen, president of Sard Verbinnen & Co., the firm that New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer hired after a scandal involving prostitutes led to his resignation.

After hearing the allegations of the young men in Syracuse, my heart goes out to them. Being traumatized in that way many times sets into motion a lifetime of dysfunction and potentially a cycle of abuse that is repeated for generations.

I'm okay with crisis managers doing their jobs to protect those affected by crisis and who are unwittingly harmed by it, but we have to do our jobs and make sure that no amount of professional steering absolves individuals or organizations of their responsibilities. Even though crisis managers might help organizations say the right things, the public must evaluate the words and help hold the individuals and institutions accountable for what they say.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Larry Woodard is a director on the Advertising Week board and chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies' New York Council.

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