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Paterno family’s new campaign shows how not to crisis manage

With their new campaign to defend Joe Paterno, his family has taken a path that will likely land them in the crisis management hall of fame for what not to do.



Paterno family’s efforts highlight what not to do

Your company can take lessons from the Paterno family’s wrongheaded and sustained campaign to repair Joe Paterno’s legacy. Over the weekend, Paterno’s family launched a media campaign that will indefinitely be cited in crisis management textbooks of what not to do.

Personally, when I hear the name “Paterno,” I will forever think of the man who chose never to act in any substantive way upon evidence he had a child molester working for him for years – and using his football program as cover. Absolutely nothing his family pays people to tell me will change my opinion of him and his actions even slightly.

Paterno family claims border on the absurd

Get this: among the rebuttals made by the family’s law firm to the report Penn State commissioned on where it went wrong and how to fix their system was a claim that investigators only considered emails they read and failed to consider what emails that no longer exist might have said.

One of the defenses I have regularly heard of Paterno has been that he cared about his players’ and co-workers education and careers far beyond only football. But among all of those Paterno supposedly cared so much about, the family now says Paterno “knew little of Sandusky’s personal life.” See how I key in on elements of the family’s actions that support my perspective?

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No one will be moved by the family’s report or publicity campaign. Not one person. People who worship at the altar of Penn State football and never placed any blame on Paterno will feel mildly more justified in their position unless they actually read the nauseating 238-page report.

Now, consider your own business in crisis

Imagine that you or one of your employees really messes up or that you are under attack by adversaries of your company. There is a time it is advisable and proper to fight back aggressively to protect your company.

And then there is a time to just be quiet. In that time, you can only do yourself more harm by invigorating your adversaries and keeping the story alive.

Do you think you would be able to separate your emotion from the proper stance you need to take in such a moment?[/span10][/row]

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Written By

David Holmes, owner of Intrepid Solutions, has over 20 years experience planning for, avoiding, and solving crises in the public policy, political, and private sectors. David is also a professional mediator and has worked in the Texas music scene.



  1. Arthur_game

    February 11, 2013 at 11:01 am

    UGH! Someone else who hasn’t read any of the reports. By “substantive”, I hope you mean not only reporting once to your superior, but also meeting subsequently with your superior and the head of UPark PD, even though he was not the witness. By “substantive”, I hope you mean following up with Mike McQueary, weeks later, to ask him if he was satisfied with how the incident was handled. By “substantive”, I hope you mean that McQueary told Paterno that he was “satisfied” with how it was handled. By “substantive”, I hope you mean telling McQueary that he should go to the police.
    By “nauseating”, I hope you mean a career FBI prosecutor and child victim investigator who gives the most insightful and useful report regarding PSOs. By “nauseating” I hope you mean paying for that report out of your own pocket and publishing to the public at large to truly learn from this terrible tragedy.
    By “keeping quiet”, I hope you mean quiet for more than a year, while a highly speculative, unsubstantiated, defamatory and unread report has been captioned and regurgitated ad infinitum by the likes of you, without uttering a single word (Sue Paterno).
    By misquoting, I hope you mean that Paterno and Sandusky were not friends, which has been corroborated by nearly every source close to the Paternos and Sandusky. By “caring”, I hope you mean that Paterno informed Sandusky that he would not be the next head coach early in ’98 because Second Mile was taking too much time away from Sandusky’s heralded coaching career.
    By “rebuttal”, I hope you mean that only a small and limited number of emails were uncovered by the Freeh Report. Those were the emails that Schultz personally maintained. Had you actually read any of the reports, you would realize that many of the emails lacked reference, subject lines, and the previous email string, which really matters if you are a serious inquirer. Freeh failed to impress upon the lack of available information, and instead chose to make many unsubstantiaed conclusions.
    By “rebuttal”, I hope you mean that Paterno and his attorney actually volunteered to be interviewed and open up dialogue with Freeh, but it was refused and neglected. This is a fact that Freeh lied about yesterday in his extremely pre-mature press release. If you are Luis Freeh, and you know that Mr. Paterno is dying of lung cancer, you send an investigator to Paterno immediately, put in writing that you are willing to accomodate, and you try your hardest to make the record complete. Freeh did not do that.

    • David Holmes

      February 11, 2013 at 11:25 am


      Freeh interviewed 463 people and his report among other reports convinced me. The point here, however, is that what the Paterno family is doing is poorly thought out when considering their likely goals. Go check the twitter feed on the subject; out of hundreds of tweets in the last few minutes, I might have seen a couple favorable to the family.

      Take a look what they just made you do above based on how you feel regarding the situation. How does the family help themselves by riling up people on two sides of the issue – none of whom are going to change their perspective based on the report?

      • Arthur_game

        February 11, 2013 at 12:28 pm

        Thank you for responding so quickly. Point by point:
        1) Did you ever wonder why Freeh never incorporated those 400-some people interviewed, and yet only found 1 individual who held a grudge against Paterno? Do you think an independant investigator would have included those other 435 people’s comments about how Paterno was extremely stubborn when it came to doing the right thing regardless of publicity?

        2) The “likely” goal is completely spelled out in Mrs. Paterno’s letter to the letterman.

        3) I have checked the twitter feed. Did you note that Phil Knight has has been re-convinced of Paterno’s legacy? Twitter has nothing to do with setting the record straight and defending yourself.

        4) I don’t feel anything about the situation, other than that the media (including bloggers) continuously neglect to not only investigate and ask but also to just read the facts. I don’t know what responsibility Paterno had. The Freeh Report is not dispositive and neither are the four reports from Messrs. Sollers, Thornburgh, Clementi, and Berlin. I can tell you from reading all of the Freeh Report, and Sollers’ and most of Clementi’s that Clementi’s Report is by far the largest contribution to educating the public about child victimization. For that the Paterno family should be thanked.

        5) You are assuming that the family is trying to help themselves. Obviously there is a benefit, if the reports are taken as exculpatory towards Paterno. But in reality, the Berlin and Clementi reports do far more than just help the Paterno name.

        6) Again, I cite Phil Knight, who has changed his perspective. Also, there are public officials in PA who are changing their perception, despite the twitter backlash. ESPN was by far the worst dissemenator of mistruths following the Freeh Report, and now they are even giving the anti-Freeh story legs.

        It would be one thing if Freeh simply concluded, which he reasonably could have, that Paterno “could have done more”. But it is entirely another thing for Freeh to stand at a podium and say, Paterno “repeatedly concealed…child abuse”, “failed to take any steps”, and “[allowed Sandusky] to continue with impunity”…for “14 years”. You can’t sit back and keep quiet when you are going against a liar with money and no due process.

        The real focus on “crisis management” should be directed towards the Penn State Board of Trustees, who completely mismanaged everything, soup to nuts in this entire tragedy.

      • Science Guy

        February 11, 2013 at 12:58 pm

        “How does the family help themselves by riling up people on two sides of the issue – none of whom are going to change their perspective based on the report?” So crisis management 101 according to you says Paterno’s family should sit by and do nothing while the press and various uninformed bloggers use their blunt tools on Penn State? You sir are an idiot – maybe a professional idiot – but an idiot nonetheless. Good luck with your businesss model.

        • David Holmes

          February 11, 2013 at 1:36 pm

          I always find the bluster of anonymity to be cute. You’ll have a hard time finding an expert in crisis management who would advise the Paterno family to have taken the course they have taken over the last few days. There are far more effective actions between “nothing” and this that could have helped repair their image.

          • Keith Berman

            February 12, 2013 at 1:33 pm

            It seems silly that you are using the above as an example of how not to manage a crisis; as tjm101 mentioned “managing a crisis assumes that you are in a crisis”.

            I imagine that one of the first things that an “expert in crisis management” would learn in their expertise is the ability to accurately determine if a situation is even a crisis or not….

          • David Holmes

            February 12, 2013 at 2:48 pm

            @google-142d2e30a6bd2a20612887c2a33379e0:disqus Within the technical study of crisis management, I might agree with you slightly. The Paterno family has initiated and is going through what would be defined as a para-crisis which in all effective measures “is” a crisis in this situation. Pick up even the most basic crisis management texts and you’ll understand why the distinction here is immaterial.

          • Keith Berman

            February 13, 2013 at 3:52 am

            First off, I question how “technical” the study of crisis management is.

            Your posts did prompt me to google “paracrisis”. Apparently, a paracrisis is threat/situation that has the potential to evolve into a crisis.

            So you are correct in that I would understand why the distinction here is immaterial; it is immaterial because this situation is not a paracrisis either. For it to be a paracrisis would imply that the things for the Paterno family and Joe Paterno’s legacy are at risk of greatly deteriorating. The actual crisis played out a year ago and Paterno’s has been in shambles ever since; things really cannot get worse for the Paterno family then they already are.

            The result of the recent report will either a) greatly restore Paterno’s legacy, b) somewhat improve Paterno’s legacy, or the worst-case scenario c) not turn around his shattered legacy at all. The worst-case scenario is not a crisis, a paracrisis, or whatever else you want to call it. You could call it a bad investment or a waste of time, but that is not the same thing as a “crisis”.

  2. tjm101

    February 11, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    Congratulations. You’ve guaranteed that you will not receive any of my business or referrals. Do yourself a favor and read Clemente’s portion of the new report, and open your mind. If you want a primer on poor crisis management, go visit what the PSU administration did in November 2011. Managing a crisis assumes that you are in a crisis. Where we are now is over a year removed from the crisis, and seeing a legitimate effort by some legitimate resources releasing a narrative that makes sense, rather than the man that Bill Clinton calls the biggest mistake of his presidency basing condemnation of 61 years on a single email taken out of context. And let’s remember, Louis Freeh presided over Waco, Ruby Ridge, TWA 800, Khobar Towers, Richard Jewell. There’s a sterling reputation Mr. Holmes. But hey, that’s your boy.

    • David Holmes

      February 11, 2013 at 1:33 pm

      @tjm101:disqus I don’t really have an opinion on Freeh or his career in one way or another. Read the majority of commentary today and you’ll see that the Paterno family created a new crisis, or at least a para-crisis. Either way, the PR campaign is foolish. There are better things they could have done with the report they paid for.

  3. ProudAlumna

    February 11, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    David…as a former communications executive with crisis management experience *and* a Penn State alumna, suffice to say that your comments and conclusions are completely off-base, and I question whether you read the entire report and whether you cross-referenced the Freeh report against the Paterno report (you know, part of due diligence and fact-gathering). This is not about emotions but facts — things that can be supported by information, data, or similar. The only emotions emerge when individuals such as yourself claim to be “all-knowing,” having either facts or insights that can stand up against individuals who *have* reviewed all the facts and can state that the conclusions drawn from the Freeh report are anything but the end of the story.

    Joe Paterno did care about his players and *all* students and did put their education first, but no where did it state nor infer that he cared about (nor protected) his co-workers as you claim he did. Furthermore, if you took the time to read the Freeh report and search for the facts that have been clearly substantiated, you could only conclude that assumptions and inaccuracies constitute the bulk of this tome. It’s far easier for you to go for blind acceptance vs. an objective evaluation.

    To state that this man put his players and program above the safety of children is ridiculous, but it’s far easier to go with the sensational approach vs. the reality-based one. Did you read that Joe stated that he couldn’t care less about publicity, stating that he did not “lose two minutes of sleep about bad publicity” regarding a situation with a player many years prior? Do you know that he did report the information (per university procedures) as he was told it and was *not* told the sordid details meaning that his understanding of events was minus facts? Did you read that Sandusky “fooled qualified child welfare professionals and law enforcement” whose jobs are to ferret out child predators? There are so many *facts* that do not support Freeh’s conclusions that Joe Paterno turned a blind eye or harbored someone harming children; even the CEO of Nike acknowledges such after reading the Paterno report so will you accuse him of being emotional or not understanding crisis management strategies and issues or lacking the ability to be objective?

    You may think you’re “keying in” on key facts and are using a keen eye to differentiate the facts (what you claim constitute the basis for the Freeh report) from whatever you believe the Paterno family is trying to accomplish, but alas you are doing anything but. You can think whatever you wish when you hear the name Paterno but please don’t offer your crisis management counsel to Penn State or our global community. We’ve already been dealing with counsel that has failed the test for far too long.

    • David Holmes

      February 11, 2013 at 1:49 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts, @8524170e54d1630aacaaf390bac8ecb1:disqus I can see that you care a great deal about the institution and/or Paterno. My point in the article was not to convince anyone that Paterno was or was not negligent in his actions; I have my opinion on that and it is not likely to change.

      My point was that the Paterno family could not have picked a less effective way to try to repair their reputation. They could have even used the report in more effective ways. The only thing they have accomplished with their media blitz, however, is to invigorate their adversaries and inflict carpel tunnel upon their friends.

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